More than a year after a new coronavirus first emerged in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday to search for its source.
The research by the team of 10 scientists is a critical step in understanding how the virus has jumped from animals to humans so that another pandemic can be prevented. Getting answers will most likely be difficult.
Notoriously wary of outside scrutiny, the Chinese government has repeatedly hindered the arrival of the team and the investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full investigation can take months, if not longer. The team must also face attempts by China to politicize the investigation.
Here's what you need to know about the study.
China set up barriers and pushed for control.
Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political Barrier.
Seemingly concerned about drawing renewed attention to the country's early mistakes in dealing with the pandemic, Chinese officials have used a variety of tactics last year the W.H.O. research.
After resisting demands from other countries to allow independent researchers in its territory to study the origin of the pathogen, China eventually released two W.H.O. experts visit in July to lay the foundation. It then immediately quarantined the team for 14 days, forcing the members to do some of their remote detective work.
They were not allowed to visit Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.
For months, China delayed approving a visit from a full team of experts, frustrating health service leaders. When the visit appeared to be completed earlier this month, it fell apart at the last minute when Beijing failed to issue visas for the visitors, the health authority said. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, issued a rare rebuke to Beijing at a press conference, saying he was "very disappointed" by the delays.
The Chinese government has demanded that Chinese scientists oversee important parts of the research. It has limited the global health agency's access to important research and data. The complete W.H.O. team will have to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Wuhan before it can begin investigative work.
Critics say Beijing & # 39; s desire for control means the research will most likely be more political than scientific.
"You want this research to be thorough, not subject to politicization, independent and transparent," said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But we have to be realistic."
Despite the problems, the W.H.O. says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent investigation.
"WHO. Has committed from the start to investigate the origin of the virus," said Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the agency, in a statement. "We ask all countries to support these efforts by showing openness and transparency. "
Detecting the virus will be a painstaking task.
The team arriving in Wuhan will face a city that has been radically transformed since the virus first emerged in late 2019, according to official broadcaster CGTN. became a symbol of the virus. devastation was held up a year later by Chinese officials like a success story in overcoming the virus – a reborn city.
The WHO. experts have decades of experience investigating the depths of viruses, animal health and disease control. They come from Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United States and other countries. Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist who studies zoonotic diseases, are among the team members.
But tracking down the source of the virus that has killed nearly two million people and infected more than 92 million since Thursday will be painstaking. While experts believe the virus comes naturally from animals, possibly bats, little else is known.
The team is expected to investigate the earliest reported cases of the virus in China, most likely by examining data from samples collected from a sprawling wet market in Wuhan selling game and live animals. Many of the first reported infections were detected there.
How much access the team gets in China will be critical, public health experts say.
They should be able to review all of the data that China's Center for Disease Control has collected on the outbreak, "including contact tracking, environmental sampling, genetic sequences and patient zero identification," said Raina MacIntyre, head of the study. biosafety program at the Kirby Institute. from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. "It is important to do this completely and transparently."
The health service has not said how long the investigation will take, nor has it released a detailed itinerary for the team's visit.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist at the W.H.O. team, said the study was a "long-term project."
“We will bring together and discuss all the scientific information already gathered by our colleagues in China:" What does that tell us? "She said in a statement. recent interview with CGTN, the Chinese international broadcaster. “Are there any pieces of information we would like to add? How can that be done? "
The team will have to circumvent attempts to politicize its investigation.
The pandemic has damaged China's reputation, and many foreign governments are still angry that Beijing has not done more to contain the crisis in its early stages. So Chinese propagandists are trying to get the W.H.O. research to boost China's image and portray the country as a mature superpower.
"China is open, fair and sincere," Xinhua, the official news agency, said in a statement comment Wednesday about the investigation.
The WHO. itself has also been attacked by the Trump administration for appearing to bend to China's will, even as the United States has been criticized for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Before the team landed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter Tuesday: "The @WHO was damaged by China's influence and bought cheaply. WHO researchers still have no access to Wuhan – a year after the first cases were reported?"
That same day, Global Times, a state-run tabloid, wrote that the on-going visit showed that China has "always been committed to contributing to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent, responsible attitude and a spirit of respect for science."
The Chinese government has tried to advance baseless theories that the virus has surfaced outside China. Chinese scientists have suggested without evidence that packaged foods from abroad may have brought the virus to China or that the pandemic could have broken out in India.
The heated political climate will keep the W.H.O. to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.
"The main concern here is that the origins of the outbreak have been so politicized," said Mr. Huang, the global health expert. “That has room for the W.H.O. have independent, objective and scientific research. "
Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.