GP Insights

GP Insights # 494, 4 April 2021

COVID-19: The WHO releases report, but the question of origin remain unanswered
Sukanya Bali

What happened?
On 30 March, the much-expected report of the WHO on COVID-19 was released. According to the report, the transmission to humans through an intermediate host animal, is the most likely scenario; the spread through "cold-chain" food products is unlikely; and the role of the Hunan animal market remains unclear. As per the report, 28 per cent of confirmed cases had links with the market, 23 per cent with the other markets of Wuhan and 24 per cent had no sign of any market exposure. The report dismisses the lab leak theory, calling it an "extremely unlikely" situation.

Tedros Adhanom, WHO's Director-General, demanded further research for a "more robust conclusion." He also said he is ready to deploy more experts to do so. China's foreign ministry spokesperson said, "Beijing had fully demonstrated its openness, transparency and responsible attitude" for the research. 

What is the background?
First, the WHO investigation and the report. After several months of delay, the team of 15 experts reached China. The team visited hospitals, animal markets, government laboratories, interviewed many locals and scientists to obtain data on the origin of the virus. The team was also taken to a museum and exhibition, showing CPC's success in the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The investigation was strictly supervised by the Chinese government. The international experts were presented with the conclusions drawn by Chinese scientists and were denied direct access to raw data of early covid patients. The report was drafted by a 34-member team of international experts and Chinese scientists. 

Second, the politicization, accusation and counter-accusation over the origin. Amid the pandemic, the US and Australia blamed China for the virus's outbreak and called for an international investigation. The former US President Donald Trump called it a Chinese Virus. The US also accused the WHO of being pro-China and pushed for withdrawing from the health agency. In response, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the US military of bringing coronavirus to Wuhan. China imposed trade barriers on Australian goods after Australia pushed for an investigation.  

Third, China's reluctance. For several months, China stalled the visit of international experts to Wuhan, where the initial outbreak. The experts faced visa delays, quarantine restrictions, and political stonewalling in China. In 2020 February and July, a small team of experts visited China but were forced to investigate from a distance.

What does it mean?
There was so much anticipation of the report; there was an expectation that the report would identify where the COVID-19 virus originated and how it spread. Unfortunately, the report is unable to provide a clear answer to the question over origin. After a year, around 2.8 million people have died, but several questions with the origin remain unanswered. The findings have raised more scepticism than clarity into the source of the virus. Second, China might resist a further investigation over the origin of the virus. The Biden administration may push for an extensive investigation and demand for more transparency into its data pool of early patients.

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