UPDATE (January 12, 2021 10:55am CST): The National Health Commission announced that the WHO team of experts will arrive in China on January 14. Zhao Lijian of the Foreign Ministry preemptively told China Daily, “it is highly likely that origin-tracing will involve many places across the world, and the WHO will conduct similar inspections in other countries if needed.”
Nearly a year after the first cases of what some described as mysterious pneumonia in Wuhan were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), a team of international scientists will depart on a six-week mission to investigate the origin of COVID-19.
Reuters reports that the WHO-led team is expected to arrive in China in early January 2021 and, after a two-week quarantine, begin their investigation which will include analyzing samples collected by Chinese researchers and interviewing market workers from the initial epicenter of the outbreak: Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
The US has criticized China for resisting a ‘transparent’ and independent investigation of the origin of the disease. The initial research done in Wuhan was all conducted by Chinese scientists. China has also suggested that the virus originated elsewhere, highlighting the presence of the virus recently on the outside packaging of imported frozen foods and some scientific studies claiming that the virus was present in Europe prior to the Wuhan outbreak.
One of the early theories on the origin of the disease was that it made the jump from animals to humans at the Huanan market, where the first cluster of cases was reported. The initial investigation by Chinese scientists has not been officially released, but some information has become available.
A document released in November by the WHO as part of the investigation plan provides some insight into the preliminary investigation at the market. The document reveals that hundreds of frozen animal carcasses were swabbed and none of them tested positive for the virus.
The report noted that sanitation was poor at the market and 69 of 842 environmental samples, like sewer ducts and door handles, did test positive, according to South China Morning Post. Whether or not live animals were tested at the market during the initial phase remains undisclosed to the WHO. The released information from the organization lists an array of live animals being sold at the market, from badgers to bamboo rats to snakes and frogs, but bats are not listed as being on the menu.
Bats have been a focal point of the theories surrounding the origin on COVID-19. An article published in The Lancet noted that a global study showed that 9% of bats carry some form of coronavirus. The Wuhan Institute of Virology had long been studying bat-borne coronaviruses and is the first lab in China to reach the highest international bioresearch safety rating BSL-4.
However, a 2018 visit to the lab by US diplomats resulted in two cables being sent which noted safety concerns and the need for heightened scrutiny and support by US medical institutions to mitigate the risk of a virus escaping the lab, according to The Washington Post.
A top pathogen biologist from Wuhan University told the Global Times that this was impossible as everything leaving the facility must be sanitized twice and staff must also shower.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, established in 1956. Image via Wikimedia
As vaccine programs are rolled out worldwide, the focus is turning back to the highly politicized origin of the virus. Despite experts around the world emphasizing that the virus is naturally occurring and evidently not a genetically engineered bioweapon, US President Donald Trump was making egregious demands since late April that China pay financial reparations for the economic fallout of COVID-19. Trump repeated this threat in a video on Twitter just days after leaving the hospital following his own treatment for COVID-19 in early October.
As many top scientists have pointed out over the past year, the virus knows no borders. This is clearly evident as much of the world enters the winter season with strict anti-epidemic restrictions and lockdowns in place.
[Cover image via Unsplash]