The international mission of the World Health Organization to China to investigate the origins of Covid-19 will explore all avenues and does not seek to find “guilty” parties, a team member told AFP.
The researchers will head to China in January and to Wuhan, where the first cases were detected 12 months ago in the pandemic that has swept the world, causing gigantic global health and economic crises.
“The meetings we have had so far with Chinese colleagues have been really productive and very good,” said Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central disease control body.
“My impression, at the moment, is that the Chinese, in the government, but also at the population level, are really interested in knowing what happened.”
Leendertz, 48, is an expert on zoonoses, infectious diseases that cross the species barrier, and is among the 10 eminent scientists who have been tasked with trying to find the origins of the new coronavirus and find out how it happened. from animals to humans.
A year after the first cluster was detected in Wuhan, they will travel to China for the first time on a mission that is expected to last between five and six weeks, the first two in quarantine.
The 10 scientists will also be accompanied by Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert on food safety and zoonoses.
“This is not about finding a guilty country or guilty authority,” Leendertz said. “It’s about understanding what happened to avoid that in the future, to reduce the risk.”
Leendertz said viruses jump from animals to humans every year, around the world.
“It was just bad luck that it was such a nasty virus,” said the German.
– “Follow the clues” –
“We are starting in Wuhan because this is where the first most robust data is available,” Leendertz said. “From there we follow the clues wherever they lead us.”
While acknowledging that “the fresher the tracks, the better,” trained vet Leendertz said even a year later “it’s still possible to narrow down the stage.”
He added that all avenues remain open in terms of scientific analysis.
An epidemiologist and a WHO animal health specialist went to China in July on a scouting mission to lay the foundation for a broader international investigation.
Since the end of October, the 10 experts have held regular virtual meetings with Chinese scientists working in the same vein.
Leendertz cautioned that “we should not have the expectation that after this first visit to China sometime in January, the team will return with conclusive results.”
However, he hopes the team will return from China with a “concrete plan” for Phase Two of the investigation, which will look at what else was needed to identify the transmission event in which the virus jumped from an animal to a human.
– Matter of time –
Leendertz explained that “most” of the work, particularly the “hands-on” basics, would be done by Chinese experts.
The international mission is “there to support them” and also “to give transparency to the rest of the world.”
While scientists generally believe that bats were the original host species for the virus, the intermediate animal between bats and humans is not yet known.
Leendertz said the team will go back in time by examining various human swabs kept by Chinese authorities and collections of serum from blood donors to see if people had been exposed to the virus before the first group was recorded in December 2019.
Another approach will be to determine the role played by the Wuhan wet market, where live exotic animals were bought and sold.
The expert in epidemiology of highly pathogenic microorganisms said he was “pretty sure that we will somehow find out what happened.”
But he said a response “may take some time”, with no deadline for the investigation being set.
Meanwhile, he hoped politics would stay “as far as possible” from the mission.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump accused China of covering up the initial outbreak and called the WHO a Beijing puppet.