Failure by WHO team to visit Wuhan sparks concerns over virus probe

A team from the World Health Organization tasked with investigating the origins of coronavirus did not visit Wuhan, fuelling concern from western governments over Beijing’s commitment to identifying the source of the pandemic.

A recently concluded three-week trip to China by the two-person WHO team did not entail a visit to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first cases of novel coronavirus were detected in December 2019, the UN agency has confirmed.

The WHO said the team was merely laying the groundwork in advance of a full international mission to investigate the virus but it was also vague on whether this larger task force would visit Wuhan.

“The WHO delegation sat in Beijing for three weeks and got nowhere near Wuhan,” a senior US official told the Financial Times. “Any chance of finding a smoking gun is now gone.”

Dave Sharma, an Australian government MP, said: “The international community is right to have serious concerns about the rigour and independence of the WHO’s early response to this pandemic, and its seeming wish to avoid offending China.

“If this allegation is proven, 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, in the critical early stages of this pandemic. We are all now bearing the immense costs of such a policy.”

It would be unrealistic to expect that the inquiry would be a purely scientific endeavour
Huang Yanzhong, Council on Foreign Relations

After initially bristling at calls from Australia, the US and other countries for a probe into the outbreak, which has claimed more than 800,000 lives, Chinese president Xi Jinping in May endorsed a WHO-led inquiry.

But the WHO resolution “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population” — which was backed by more than 130 countries — has been dogged by concerns over transparency and access.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said in July he believed the results of the inquiry would be “completely whitewashed”. In May, President Donald Trump terminated US ties with the WHO, which he said was under the “total control” of Beijing.

China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that concerns over the credibility of the inquiry were “totally unjustified”.

The ministry said China had acted responsibly by inviting a WHO team to the country while it was still in a “critical period” of preventing a resurgence of the virus. “We hope all relevant countries . . . can be like China to adopt a positive attitude and work together with the WHO,” it added.

Last week, the UN agency said: “A two-person WHO team has recently concluded its three-week assignment in China to lay the groundwork for an investigation into the source of the virus. This was in advance of the full mission, therefore, there are no ‘results of the WHO’s recent mission’ to share.”

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the investigation would need unrestricted access in Wuhan as well as other areas of China, such as south-western Yunnan province, to produce authoritative results.

“It would be unrealistic to expect that the inquiry would be a purely scientific endeavour,” Mr Huang said. To both please China and also appear neutral and scientific, the WHO might focus purely on the animal origin of the virus rather than public health failures, he added.

In response to questions from the FT this week, the WHO said its advance team had remote conversations with senior scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It agreed with China that preliminary epidemiological studies around the Wuhan market and the first cluster of cases would be conducted in the coming weeks and months.

“The international team will work with Chinese researchers to support these studies initially remotely, and later locally. The exact timing will depend on the advance and preliminary results of the initial studies,” the organisation said.

The WHO declined to comment on whether the team had intended to visit Wuhan.

Scientists studying the animal origins of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, believe there is a high chance it originated in horseshoe bats in south-west China, which have been found to carry a virus that is a 96 per cent genetic match.

But little progress has been made in confirming the exact method of transmission to humans, which would probably have involved an intermediate animal host.

Further questions over the identity of “patient zero” remain unanswered. Some Chinese studies suggested early cases involved individuals who contracted the virus without coming into contact with the Wuhan market suspected of being the origin of the outbreak.

China has almost entirely halted the spread of Covid-19 within its border. Multiple small clusters that threatened to spark a resurgence have been quickly quashed by lockdowns and mass testing drives.

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