Some experts are questioning the purpose of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus investigative mission to China, which wrapped up this week after months of diplomatic tension with no clarity on how the virus began.
The team of experts departed the global pandemic outbreak city of Wuhan with plenty of theories, and many questions remaining unanswered about how the world-changing global pandemic first developed.
Preliminary findings after 28 days on the ground in Wuhan settled on what was widely assumed before the investigation: The virus originated in bats and transferred to a human either directly or via an intermediary animal.
But a third theory being heavily pushed by the Chinese side – that the virus started elsewhere and then arrived in Wuhan on the packaging of frozen imported food products – was also put forward by the joint mission.
Some involved in the investigation have privately described that as a possible but less likely scenario.
“It hasn’t really given us new information,” Peter Collignon, a pathologist at ANU who has previously worked on WHO research projects, said.
“I know some of those experts and I think they’re very good but they’re limited to the information they’re given, and there was a real hesitation in even letting them come.”
An original theory that the virus may have transferred to humans from wild animals being traded at the city’s Huanan wholesale market was largely ruled out because outbreaks among patients from other parts of Wuhan were happening at the same time.
The most politically charged theory – that the virus leaked from a virus research lab – was deemed too unlikely by the joint Chinese-WHO team.
“They quickly dismissed possible unnatural origins, which was expected, given the political sensitivities, not just for China, but for the world,” Raina MacIntyre, an infectious disease specialist at the University of New South Wales, said.
She questioned what evidence was presented to fully rule out the theory.
Thousands of tests on various animal species in China also failed to detect the virus and determine an intermediary animal.
But it was a conclusion that coronavirus was not detected circulating in Wuhan prior to December 2019 that has raised eyebrows abroad.
The Chinese scientists collating information for the WHO did not go back and test stored blood donation samples from Wuhan in 2019, which might have shown the virus present earlier.
“I am surprised that they concluded the outbreak started in December and not earlier,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“There is now serological data from the US and Europe that shows the virus was already circulating in those regions by December 2019, which does not fit with the WHO postulate that it was not circulating widely prior to December,” she said.
The first case of COVID-19 was not confirmed in the United States until January 2020.
But when the US Centres for Disease Control tested blood donated to the Red Cross, they found that the disease had probably reached American shores as early as December 13, 2019.
Speaking upon arriving back in Sydney for two weeks of hotel quarantine, the lone Australian member of the WHO team, Dominic Dwyer, said the Chinese scientists “did do some enormous amounts of work quickly”.
He and his colleagues were presented with 76,000 case reports from 130-odd facilities in Wuhan to identify early cases.
But he said the Chinese side would not agree to a suggestion from the expert team to test stored blood donor samples in Wuhan from 2019, because of supposed legal difficulties in testing old samples.
“It would be very useful to have blood samples from donors in 2019 that could be independently verified for COVID-19 antibody levels,” Professor Collignon told.
A final report may take another year or more, with the Chinese Government pushing the WHO to spend time conducting further field studies in other countries, even though the initial outbreak was in Wuhan.
One member of the expert team, Peter Daszak, told Chinese state media that the next focus for the investigation would be southeast Asia.
But Hassen Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, believes it may now be too late to understand the origins of the novel coronavirus.
“I’d like to think I’m fairly optimistic but this is one area where I have fairly low expectations,” he said.
“Imagine if there was some sort of major incident and you went there 12 months later, and you were only given access in a very controlled way to particular bits of information that the person being investigated wanted you to see.”
The original call for an independent international investigation from Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne resulted in diplomatic backlash from Beijing and exacerbated existing tensions.
Later, the Chinese Government agreed to a European Union proposal for a joint mission with the WHO, with Beijing firmly in control of access to original research.
But while the end mission was a far cry from Ms Payne’s first suggestion, the Morrison Government has pledged to wait for the final report.
“It’s no surprise that there were no surprises,” Australia’s Health Minister, Greg Hunt, said.
Dr Valley said while it would be good for scientists to pinpoint the exact moment COVID-19 infected patient zero, we could live without that information.
“It would be amiss of us not to delve as deep as we can into this catastrophic world event, and clearly there’s the potential to shed some insight,” Dr Valley said.
“But is it likely to change our broader understanding of the way in which pathogens emerge? Probably not.”
The source: ABC News