GP Insights

GP Insights # 471, 14 February 2021

The WHO mission in China: COVID-19 virus did not emerge from the Wuhan lab
Sukanya Bali

What happened?

On 9 February, the WHO experts presented their preliminary finding stating that “the origin of COVID-19 is yet to identify, and it is unlikely to have leaked from a Chinese lab.” Peter Ben Embarek, head of WHO mission said, “Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely a pathway, and require more studies, specific and targeted research.” The team also pointed at a further investigation into cold chain products, “referring to transport and trade of frozen products.” 

On 12 February, a WHO independent investigator said, “Chinese scientists refused to share raw data that might bring the world closer to understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.” Chinese scientists also disclosed 92 people being hospitalized with a symptom of fever and cough in Wuhan in October 2019.

What is the background?

First, the call for an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19. The first cluster surfaced in Wuhan, in December 2019; it was linked to the Chinese seafood and poultry markets. The then US President Trump called it a Chinese virus. Among other countries, Australia also called for a WHO investigation into the origins of the virus. The US accused the WHO of being pro-China and pushed for withdrawing from the health agency. In response, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the US military of bringing coronavirus to China. China imposed trade barriers on Australian goods after Australia pushed for an investigation into the origins of the virus. In November, the New York Times reported that the Chinese ambassador lobbied WHO against the declaration of an international emergency in the early days of the pandemic.

Second, the WHO mission to China. For several months China delayed the visit of WHO experts to Wuhan, where the first clusters were reported. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO said, he was “very disappointed” by the delays. In July, a small team of WHO experts entered China but was forced to carry out an investigation from a distance. They were also discouraged from questioning China’s response to the outbreak. 

In October, as more countries started blaming China for the pandemic and called on China for transparency, the team of researchers from WHO and Chinese started over the discussions on the origin of coronavirus and how it is transmitted to the human body. After months of negotiations, the Chinese government allowed a team of 15 scientists to visit. Among them, two scientists weren’t allowed to China after they tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. The team faced hurdles like visa delays, quarantine restrictions, and political stonewalling in the country. 

Third, the finding. In the joint press meeting on 09 February, the Chinese experts, and the WHO team, disclosed their key findings. First, no COVID-19 spread in Wuhan before 19 December 2020. Second, coronavirus most likely emerged in bats and spread to humans through another animal which is yet to be identified. Third, the Huanan seafood market may not be the first place of the outbreak. Fourth, it is extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan. Fifth, it may be possible that the virus spread to humans through frozen food. Lastly, the virus may not be passed from the animal-to-human transmission.

What does it mean?

First, the mission is yet to identify the origins of the virus, transmission and spread. China used the WHO visit as a public relations exercise. The investigation remains politicized and the blame game continues. 

Second, the primary accusation on the leak of the virus on China’s Virology lab stands dismissed after the WHO visit rendering allegations baseless. 

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