WHO investigators have arrived in China for a COVID-19 origin probe. But they're already downplaying expectations - ABC News

 proxy.yoo.workers.dev  01/14/2021 03:42:14 

There are two countries that have a lot riding on the long-awaited World Health Organisation (WHO) investigation into the coronavirus origins.

China, of course, but to a lesser extent Australia, too.

It was Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne who first called for an international investigation into the origins and response to COVID-19 back in May last year.

And while China later backed a watered-down European Union proposal for a joint WHO-China probe, it was Australia that copped a diplomatic backlash for months.

China has cited Payne's suggestion as one of the factors in its trade bans and restrictions on Australian exports.

Australia will be watching the outcomes of the probe

After enduring all that diplomatic grief, the Scott Morrison Government will be hoping the WHO investigators who have just arrived in Wuhan will come up with some meaningful answers.

But China is very much in control of this international inquiry.

It repeatedly put off the WHO's requests for visits last year and even further delayed this month's arrival of the 10-member expert team by a week.

As for the investigation itself, it is Chinese scientists doing the on-the-ground fieldwork in Wuhan, with the 10 visiting experts primarily analysing and evaluating it.

And if you're wondering why we haven't heard much about the virus from Chinese scientists since it was first detected there in late December 2019, it's likely because of the tight restrictions Xi Jinping's government placed on publishing research about it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during an event.
Xi Jinping's government has placed tight restrictions on publishing research about the coronavirus.(AP: Xinhua)

An Associated Press investigation in late December revealed approval from a cabinet-level taskforce was needed in China to publish research related to the virus.

One can only hope the past year of unpublished studies from Wuhan are being saved for the WHO experts.

What can we expect from this inquiry?

The 10 visiting members in the WHO team include zoologists, respiratory experts and infectious diseases specialists.

But there is likely be little fanfare after their arrival in the country. They will head straight to hotel quarantine for two weeks.

During that time, they'll be continuing their work, holding more of the video calls with Chinese counterparts that they've already been doing from abroad.

The team then has roughly two weeks in Wuhan to visit hospitals, labs, wet markets and other relevant places before the trip is expected to wrap up ahead of Chinese New Year.

It's a tight deadline and already those involved in the investigation are playing down expectations.

"We expect after this mission we'll have better questions," spokeswoman for the WHO, Margaret Harris, told ABC Radio National.

"This will clarify where we need to go with the next bits of the study but don't expect to have magic answers after this particular part of the fieldwork."

Dominic Dwyer, a Sydney-based virologist who is among the experts flying to Wuhan, echoed these sentiments.

A man with white hair and wearing glasses and blue scrubs smiles in a labratory.
Dominic Dwyer has previously worked on various WHO missions, including the 2003 SARS outbreak in China.(ABC News: Bill Birtles)

"We're not going to find 'patient zero' or 'virus zero,'" he told the ABC.

"But we may have a much better indication of whether the virus truly started in Wuhan, or did it start somewhere else but was then amplified in Wuhan?

"Did it come from an animal source and if so, which one? What was the role of laboratories in all of this? I think we'll have a better idea."

China's actions so far don't indicate a fully transparent investigation

It's also worth pondering what China stands to gain from all this.

No matter how much the scientists try to avoid politics, it has been there from the start.

Beijing's state news agency Xinhua last year published a sanitised timeline of China's response to the outbreak, free from any of the early missteps and cover-ups that unwittingly helped the virus spread.

The Chinese Government's anger over Australia's call for an investigation highlights how sensitive Xi's government is to any perception of fault or blame.

Bloggers and independent voices who sought to report from Wuhan in the early days have been detained or jailed.

Government media has also routinely jumped on isolated studies or theories to promote the idea that the virus came to China from abroad.

With far higher per-capita infection rates overseas  and China's great rival, the United States, mired in a much worse pandemic  there's little reason to think other countries would have done better had the virus first emerged on their soil.

But the diplomatic defensiveness and tight control of research so far in China doesn't bode well for hopes of a fully transparent investigation.

If China can invite foreign scientists in and come away with findings that don't cast the country or government in any particularly bad light, then that will probably be regarded by Xi's government as a success.

And the probe itself could be portrayed as the responsible actions of a great power collaborating with international organisations for the common good.

But if there are omissions in lab samples or research avenues left unexplored, Mr Dwyer is hopeful the WHO team can provide some positive pressure.

"If people have been reticent to do that sort of research, perhaps because of political or other concerns, the WHO does have an ability to shine a light on where work needs to be done," he said.

"It might then encourage people to allow that sort of work to happen."

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