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What to know about WHO’s hunt for COVID-19 origin in China

Scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and officials of China National Health Commission have over the past months been a mission to track the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic from its first epicentre, Wuhan.

After several months of delays in access, they found some exposes including a correlation between high viral infection and animal to human transmission, aligning with early reports of the virus discovery from a seafood market in China.

The final analysis of epidemiological data of cases detected in Wuhan before December 31, showed that several who had been exposed to the Huanan Market had identical virus genomes, suggesting it can be part of a cluster.

About 90 people were hospitalised with COVID-19-like symptoms in central China in the two months before the disease was first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, according to WHO investigators, who said they pressed Beijing to allow further testing to determine whether the new virus was spreading earlier than previously known.

But by the time antibody tests were performed on about two-thirds of patients in the past few months, investigators didn’t find a trace of infection by the virus.

Members of the WHO team probing the pandemic’s origins said any antibodies could have subsided to undetectable levels during the delay.

“Finally, according to the relevant literature review concerning the research on the data, it suggests that early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 from unpublished studies was also a very important part of our review. These studies from different countries suggest that SARS-CoV-2 circulation preceded the initial detection of cases by several weeks,” Professor Liang Wannian, head of the Chinese team of joint expert said during a press briefing early this month.

“Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case reported. This indicates the possibility of the missed reported circulation in other regions.”

Team members said they urged China to conduct wider tests on blood samples collected in autumn 2019 around Hubei, the province that is home to Wuhan, to look for evidence about when the virus was first circulating.

Chinese authorities said they hadn’t yet obtained necessary permissions to test samples, many of which are held in blood banks, WHO investigators said.

However, speaking to the BBC, John Watson, a professor part of the investigation team, said while there are reasons to do with the way the outbreak started in Wuhan and how the virus lives in different animal reservoirs point to China as a very possible source for the outbreak, it is “by no means necessarily the place where the leap from animals to humans take place and I think we need to ensure that we are looking beyond the borders of China as well as within China”.

Blames still trailing China

The outcomes of the investigation seemed to have availed China reasons to be exonerated from accusations that it fuelled the spread of the pandemic by keeping the rest of the world in the dark when the outbreak was initially noticed.

But the disclosures to WHO have raised questions about the possibility that COVID-19, which has now killed more than 2.3 million people, was already spreading in China as far back as October 2019 and that earlier detection could have helped contain the outbreak before it became a global pandemic.

The first patient identified in China developed symptoms on December 8, 2019, according to Chinese authorities.

The authorities have been accused of downplaying the risk of the virus even when there was clear evidence of transmission from person to person. “Action was not taken until it was too late to stop widespread transmission of the virus during the 2020 Lunar New Year travel period, even though officials had been warned it was likely to develop into a major public health event. In Wuhan, the government even held a mass banquet in an attempt to break a world record, an analysis of the issue by CNN stated.

The first cases in Wuhan occurred between December 12 and December 29, 2019 according to city authorities. The cases weren’t reported to WHO until December 31. By the time Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23, 2020, the virus had already spread to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the US.

Scientists are hoping to get a clearer understanding of how the virus itself evolved and first jumped to humans.

Peter Daszak, another WHO team member told CNN that eventually, scientists will get a really clear picture of how the virus originated but might take weeks, months or even a “couple of years.”

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