For months, China has resisted authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to send experts to the country to research the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, fearing that such an investigation would attract the attention to the Chinese government’s first deceptive steps in leading the epidemic.
After a global outcry, Beijing finally gave in, allowing a team of 14 scientists to visit laboratories, health control centers and live animal markets over the past 12 days in the city of Wuhan.
But instead of criticizing, WHO experts on Tuesday praised Chinese officials and endorsed critical parts of their story, including some that raised doubt.
The WHO team has opened the door to a theory adopted by Chinese authorities that the virus may have spread to humans in frozen food shipments, an idea that received little support from scientists outside of China.
And experts have vowed to investigate reports that the virus could be present outside China months before the Wuhan outbreak in late 2019, a long-standing request from Chinese authorities.
“We should really be looking for evidence of earlier spread, anywhere,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virus expert on the WHO team, at a three-hour conference in Wuhan, where experts presented their preliminary results with Chinese scientists.
Some scientists worry that the shift in focus to other countries could cause research to be overlooked. Determining what happened in the early days of the outbreak in China is considered vital to preventing a new pandemic.
The team also dismissed the idea that the virus accidentally leaked from a Chinese lab, which even some skeptical scientists say is worth exploring. This theory is different from the widely discredited one suggested by Republican politicians in the United States – that a Chinese lab manufactured the virus for use as a biological weapon.
WHO, by definition, is respectful of its member countries and has long adopted a diplomatic tone in its dealings with the Chinese government, which is notoriously resistant to external scrutiny. The investigation is still in its early stages – it could take years – and WHO officials have promised a rigorous and transparent review of data and research in China and other countries.
But the results announced on Tuesday gave Beijing a victory in public relations, as it came under attack by officials in the United States and other countries for its initial attempts to cover up the outbreak.
“This is the most reliable support China has received in terms of its official narrative,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. Huang said the WHO should continue to pressure China for data and access.
“A visit is not enough time to conduct a thorough investigation,” he said. “They are doing all the work within the parameters set by the Chinese government.”
The team did not report any major progress, but said they found important clues. The virus was circulating in Wuhan several weeks before it appeared in the Huanan seafood wholesale market, where some of the first pits were reported, experts said.
Most likely, it first appeared in bats and spread to humans through another small mammal, although experts have not been able to identify the species.
“All the work that has been done on the virus and to try to identify its origin continues to point to a natural reservoir,” said Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist at WHO who is leading the team. experts, at a press conference.
Ben Embarek said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had come out of a laboratory that studies bat coronaviruses in Wuhan.
The team met with executives from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has a state-of-the-art laboratory, last week, and Ben Embarek said “it is very unlikely that anything can escape this location. “, citing local security protocols.
Chinese officials have strongly promoted the idea that the virus came from abroad, stressing that the search for its origin should focus on places outside of China.
The investigation “will not be limited to nowhere,” said Liang Wannian, who led the team of Chinese scientists who aided the WHO mission. He said Chinese researchers found no evidence that the virus was circulating in China on a large scale until December 2019.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular press conference that the United States would wait until it sees the WHO report before drawing conclusions on its findings and on Beijing’s transparency with investigators.
During his visit to Wuhan, members of the WHO team said they would try to avoid political issues and ask tough questions.
In Wuhan, where they underwent two weeks of quarantine before starting work, they gave media interviews and were pictured being tested for the coronavirus. They used social media to make the visit more transparent, posting photos and comments on their communications with Chinese scientists.
Experts repeatedly praised Chinese colleagues, saying the government had acted in good faith in granting access to key sites, including laboratories and markets. At Tuesday’s press conference, the experts were cordial and did not dispute the statements of their Chinese hosts.
The WHO team will face pressure in the coming months not only to resolve sensitive scientific issues, but also to demonstrate that it is conducting a fair and rigorous investigation.
Translation by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves