WHO arriving in China to investigate the origins of COVID-19 after delays - ABC News

 proxy.yoo.workers.dev  01/13/2021 19:23:29 

After repeated delays and months of torturous negotiations, a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) will today finally touch down in China to conduct their much-anticipated investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The experts conducting the probe are not only facing a complex scientific task, but a daunting political and diplomatic challenge as well.

The debate over where and how COVID-19 began has been inexorably drawn into the intensifying geopolitical battle between the United States and China and poisoned by disinformation campaigns.

And conducting a clear-eyed and rigorous study into the pandemic, more than one year after the virus first emerged, and under the auspices of an increasingly controlling and authoritarian Chinese state, will not be easy.

How did it all start?

The first calls for an inquiry began almost as soon as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly around the world  Australia being one of the first countries to voice its desire for an investigation.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne drew a furious response from China when she called for an independent inquiry into where the virus came from.

Beijing was enraged, accusing Australia of trying to smear China's Government at the bidding of the United States.

A woman in full PPE swipes a swab over a fish at a market
The WHO has been pressing ahead with a scientific study into COVID-19's origins.(Reuters)

The dispute kickstarted a frenetic campaign of international diplomacy and negotiation in the lead up to a crucial World Health Assembly meeting in May.

In the end a record 137 countries  including Australia and China  backed a European Union-led motion calling for a "comprehensive, independent and impartial" investigation into how the pandemic started and the international health response.

Australia claimed this as vindication, drawing an angry and contemptuous response from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.

Since then the bilateral relationship has been caught in a downward spiral, with Beijing slapping trade sanctions on a growing list of Australian exports including coal, barley, timber and wine.

The tensions between the two countries predate the fight over the COVID-19 inquiry and span strategic, technological and ideological terrains.

But the dispute over the investigation poured fuel on the fire, inflaming institutional hostility towards Australia in Beijing and hastening direct confrontation.

What has happened since then?

WHO briefing
Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said two team members already boarded planes before suddenly finding themselves blocked from China.(AP: Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The WHO has been steadily pushing ahead with the inquiry.

But progress has been painfully slow.

The organisation put together an independent evaluation panel co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, charged with studying the outbreak and the initial global response.

The WHO has also been pressing ahead with a scientific study into COVID-19's origins, led by a team of international experts drawn from top universities and research institutes from all over the world.

It includes Australian microbiologist Dominic Dwyer, from Westmead Hospital in Sydney.

This is the team which will land in China this morning.

Getting into the country has not been easy. Negotiations between the WHO and Chinese authorities have already dragged on for months.

The scientists were meant to fly into China earlier this month only to suddenly find out at the last minute that their visas had not been approved.

That drew a rare flash of public frustration from the Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said two of the team members had already boarded planes before suddenly finding themselves blocked from the country.

"I have once again made it clear [to China] that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team" he told reporters.

Chinese authorities responded with a bland statement saying it was still working on "necessary procedures" for the visit and said officials were still preoccupied with several small COVID-19 outbreaks in China.

Everything is political

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Wang Xining says he believes China was "singled out".

The protracted battle simply to enter China highlights how sensitive Beijing is about the inquiry, and the fraught political environment the team will operate in.

While the WHO has publicly praised China's response to the virus, there is growing evidence that Chinese authorities withheld vital information about the outbreak during the critical early days of the pandemic.

The United States has repeatedly berated China for its handling the initial outbreak in Wuhan, with the Trump Administration declaring that the Chinese authorities must wear the blame for the global devastation wrought by COVID-19.

Senior US officials have also publicly speculated that COVID-19 likely originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a theory which has been dismissed by most experts.

In this climate China has become even more intent on suppressing any information which might damage its reputation.

It's invested heavily in research to determine the origins of the virus, but it's also closely monitoring their findings and has ordered scientists not to publish anything without the express permission of the senior leadership of the nation.

At the same time Chinese state media have peddled fringe theories suggesting the virus might have originated in India or northern Italy instead of China.

WHO team members have said they've been promised full access to scientists and facilities in China in order to conduct their work.

But even if that access is granted, negotiating these political sensitivities while pressing relentlessly for the information and data they need will require deft footwork.

What will the team do?

Doctors look at a CT scan of a patient at a hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
WHO experts will likely spend time assessing the research which has already been conducted by Chinese scientists.(AP: Chinatopix)

The team will spend the first two weeks working in quarantine, before spending another two weeks or so on the ground, including in Wuhan where the first major outbreak occurred.

The experts will likely spend quite a bit of time assessing the research which has already been conducted by Chinese scientists investigating the pandemic.

That will allow the WHO experts to work out precisely what data is already available and what further research will be required to try and determine the source.

One of the team members, Dutch expert Marion Koopmans, told Chinese television channel CGTN that would allow the scientists to conduct a "mapping exercise" to establish what research still needs to be done to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Then it's a matter of working out how, and when, that investigative work can be done.

The most common theory is still that COVID-19 was carried by bats and then passed through to humans by another animal, possibly a species sold at a wildlife wet market.

But the long delay between the initial outbreak and this trip is likely to make it much harder for the scientists to identify the very first case.

WHO officials are playing down the likelihood that they will be able to quickly nail down the precise source and have hinted that further trips to China may be necessary in the future.

Will they be back?

Of course, if the WHO team wants to come back then they will need to again get a green light from Chinese authorities.

This is another reason why the organisation has been so keen to avoid angering China's Government, and to distance themselves from the geopolitical tumult over the disease.

Some of the scientists in the team have also given media interviews stressing they are solely focussed on conducting a scientifically rigorous investigation and have no interest in getting drawn into political disputes.

"I don't believe it is about blaming China," Ms Koopmans said.

"It's about understanding and learning for the future of our global preparedness."

It's a worthy goal.

But magically disentangling the empirical from the political in the current political era  and in Xi Jinping's China  might be beyond even the miracle-makers of modern science.

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