14:49 27.08.2020

WHO goes on three-week Covid mission to China – but without visiting Wuhan

Source: The Telegraph
WHO goes on three-week Covid mission to China – but without visiting Wuhan

A World Health Organization team sent to China to investigate the origins of coronavirus did not visit Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged late last year, sparking criticism.

The WHO reiterated on Thursday that the two officials who visited China were part of an “advance mission” whose role was to lay the groundwork and terms of reference for the international investigation into the origins of Sars-Cov-2, which was agreed earlier this year.

Dave Sharma, an Australian MP, told the Financial Times: “It is another disturbing incident of the WHO - which is charged with safeguarding global public health - putting the political sensitivities of a member state above the public health interests of the world”.  

Australia lead calls in April for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which a Chinese envoy this week likened to Brutus betraying Julius Caesar. 

The US has also been critical of China's and the WHO's handling of the outbreak. 

The WHO said the visit to China had been successfully completed and a call asking all WHO member states to propose experts for the mission was expected to be issued shortly.

Once selected, the international team is expected to visit China, including Wuhan, later this year, say WHO sources. Exact timings will depend on how long the selection process takes and travel conditions dictated by the progress of the pandemic.

It is understood the two officials in the advance party had a “productive” trip.

They were quarantined in a hotel outside Beijing for the best part of two weeks but conducted multiple calls daily with their Chinese counterparts. Further time was spent in meetings in Beijing.

This included “extensive” discussions with their Chinese counterparts, including video conversations with senior scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Chinese scientists are gathering evidence and conducting preliminary research in cooperation ahead of the start of the investigation in cooperation with overseas counterparts. This is expected to be shared with WHO and the mission members once the investigation formally starts.

The idea that two officials would visit Wuhan to sort out the origins of the disease before the terms of reference had been set or the members of the international team selected was fanciful, said sources.

The investigation into the origins of the virus will be a herculean scientific effort which may never bear fruit. Most experts say so-called spillover events where animal viruses are picked up by humans are constantly happening. Most burn out naturally but a few explode.

The most important thing in terms of preventing another pandemic, say experts, is not to pinpoint a precise event but to understand the environmental conditions - animal husbandry, supply chains, food processing etc - that increase the risk of a major outbreak.

Many of the initial cases of Covid-19 were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan.

Calls have grown for an inquiry into how the coronavirus pandemic began, and how exactly the bug jumped from animals to humans, as experts believe. 

More than 120 countries successfully pressed for an investigation into the origins of the outbreak in May during the World Health Assembly.

China agreed to the inquiry, saying it would be appropriate only after the pandemic was brought under control, but didn’t specify how much access would be granted to experts.

The inquiry has been politically charged, with the US and other nations blaming China’s cover-up and missteps for exacerbating a devastating virus outbreak that has now sickened more than 24 million people, and killed nearly 830,000.

“This is a regime that failed to disclose information they had about a virus that’s now killed over 100,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands across the world, cost the global economy trillions and trillions of dollars,” Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said in July.

As such, any WHO inquiry in China would be “completely, completely whitewashed,” he said, citing Beijing’s actions to destroy samples and silence whistleblowers.

Beijing has pushed back against those claims and instead has focused on its success in containing the coronavirus.

Beijing has also sought to win diplomatic points by selling medical and protective equipment to other countries, some of which has turned out to be faulty.

China’s staunch defence of its coronavirus response – and ongoing diplomatic spat with Australia, which led the push for an investigation – means tensions remain high.

China’s foreign ministry repeatedly deflected questions from foreign journalists about the itinerary and access granted while the WHO two-person team was visiting in July.

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