China has resisted for months allowing World Health Organization experts to trace the country’s origins to the global epidemic, fearing that such an investigation could draw attention to the government’s early mistakes in handling the epidemic.
After the global upheaval, the Chinese government finally allowed in, allowing a team of 14 scientists to visit laboratories, epidemiological centers and livestock markets over the past 12 days in Wuhan City.
But instead of contempt from WHO experts, Chinese officials were praised on Tuesday and endorsed critical parts of their narrative, including those that were controversial.
The WHO team opened the door to a theory accepted by Chinese officials, saying it was possible the virus could have spread to humans through the transport of frozen food, but the idea became less attractive to scientists outside China. And experts have promised to investigate reports that the virus may have occurred outside China months before the Wuhan outbreak in late 2019, a long-standing demand by Chinese officials.
“We really should go and look for evidence of past traffic, wherever it is,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team at a three-hour press conference in Wuhan, where experts presented their preliminary findings alongside Chinese scientists.
Some scientists fear that shifting attention to other countries could result in a loss of research. Determining what happened in the early days of the epidemic in China is critical to avoiding another epidemic.
The team also played on the idea that the virus could have accidentally leaked out of a Chinese-led laboratory that even some skeptical scientists thought was worth discovering. This theory differs from that advocated by some Republicans in the United States, and it has been claimed that a Chinese laboratory manufactures the virus as a bioweapon.
The WHO is designed to be ignored by its member countries and has long had a diplomatic voice in its dealings with the Chinese government, which is notoriously resistant to external scrutiny. The investigation is still at its earliest stage – it could take years – and WHO officials have promised a rigorous and transparent examination of the data and research by China and other countries.
Nonetheless, the results announced Tuesday won Beijing a public relations victory as officials in the U.S. and elsewhere attack it for its first efforts to cover up the epidemic.
“This is the most credible support China has received for its official narrative,” said Yanzhong Huang, a global health officer at the Foreign Relations Council.
Mr Huang said the WHO should continue to push for data and access to China.
“A visit is not enough time for a thorough investigation,” he said. “All work will be done within the parameters set by the Chinese government.”
The team did not report significant breakthroughs, but said it found important clues. The virus circulated in Wuhan a few weeks before it appeared on the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the earliest clusters were originally reported, experts said. It probably appeared in bats and spread to humans through another small mammal, although experts have failed to identify the species.
“All the work against the virus and identifying its origins continues to point to a natural reservoir,” said Peter K. Ben Embarek, a WHO food safety scientist who leads the expert group. news conference.
According to Dr. Ben Embarek, it is “extremely unlikely” that the virus may have come from a laboratory in Wuhan bat coronavirus.
The team met the leaders of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to the state-of-the-art laboratory, last week, and Dr. Ben Embarek said it was “very unlikely that anything could escape such a place.” with reference to the security protocols there.
WHO experts on Tuesday tried to focus their comments on the scientific aspects of the mission. But the investigation was often overshadowed by politics.
Some officials in the United States and other Western countries have questioned the independence of the WHO investigation, arguing that China is seeking to verify the outcome. The government has repeatedly postponed the visit of WHO experts and tried to limit the scope of their mission. And authorities are vigilantly monitoring virus research in China and raising concerns that they may try to prevent the release of embarrassing information.
The Chinese government has tried to focus on something else, continuing to suggest that the virus may have come from overseas. Cui Tiankai, the U.S. ambassador to China, recently suggested that the U.S. allow the WHO to send investigators there as part of its investigation.
Chinese officials at a press conference on Tuesday strongly supported the idea that the virus came from abroad, arguing that tracing the origin of the virus should focus on places outside China.
The investigation “will not be limited to any place,” said Liang Wannian, who led a team of Chinese scientists assisting in the WHO mission. He said Chinese researchers have found no evidence that the virus circulated widely in China before December 2019.
During their visit to Wuhan, members of the WHO team said they would try to avoid politics and promised to ask tough questions. In Wuhan, where they were quarantined for two weeks before starting field work, they were interviewed by the news media and photographed to test for the coronavirus. They turned to social media to provide more transparency during the visit, posting photos and comments about their talks with Chinese scholars.
Experts have repeatedly praised their Chinese counterparts, saying the government has worked in good faith to provide access to important sites, including laboratories and markets. At Tuesday’s press conference, the experts were cordial and did not dispute the statements of their Chinese hosts.
The team will be under pressure in the coming months not only to resolve tricky scientific issues, but to demonstrate that they are conducting a fair and tough investigation.
“China’s strategic narrative now reads, ‘This was China’s part of the investigation, and we did it and move on.’ said Daniel R. Lucey, a specialist in infectious diseases at Georgetown University.
According to Dr. Lucey, experts need to achieve a breakthrough to prove credibility.
“If the team doesn’t come up with some content,” he added, “there’s also a risk that people will say it was just a show.
Albee Zhang contributed to the research.