WHO experts in China investigating COVID-19 origins: What we know so far
The WHO team in China consists of two experts -- an animal health specialist and the other an epidemiologist.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has sent a two-person advanced team to China to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has so far infected close to 13 million people across the world, with over 565,000 deaths. But few details have been released about the mission that could lay the groundwork for the probe.
According to Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, "the experts will develop the scope and terms of reference for a WHO-led international mission. The mission objective is to advance the understanding of animal hosts for Covid-19 and ascertain how the disease jumped between animals and humans".
So here is what we know so far about the WHO team's visit to China:
It consists of two experts -- one an expert in animal health and the other an epidemiologist. This is an advance team, which means they are in China to be able to determine the agenda, the scope and scale of a greater investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. It is still very early on in this process.
According to the WHO, these two individuals will try to get answers to two very critical questions: It is known that the virus is found in bats, but is there an intermediate species -- another animal host -- that also transmitted the virus? How did this virus make that leap from animals to humans?
According to a South China Morning Post report, Chinese authorities did not make a statement about the visitors on the weekend and the Chinese media did not report their arrival. And no Chinese institution, including the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed that it had or would confer with the WHO experts.
The WHO team's visit comes at a time of tensions between the US, China and the WHO over the pandemic response.
US President Donald Trump says the WHO is not impartial and has accused the international agency of covering up for China, whom he blames for the global health crisis.
The US has decided to leave the UN agency on July 6, 2021, after more than 70 years of its membership with the Geneva-based body. Trump had announced the decision over a month ago, accusing that the WHO sided with China on the outbreak of the virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
He alleged the health body intentionally ignored reports that COVID-19 was spreading between people in Wuhan in December and misled the world resulting in deaths of over half a million people globally, including over 135,000 in America.
But the WHO has denied assertions by Trump that it promoted Chinese "disinformation" about the virus. Also, Chinese officials have pushed back, defending the country’s handling of the outbreak and saying the identification of the virus in China does not mean it originated there.
According to David Fidler -- a legal scholar and expert in global health who has advised the WHO -- the US withdrawal would make it more difficult for the WHO to negotiate the terms of the international mission in China.
“Without the United States having WHO’s back, WHO has no leverage here. It’s in a difficult situation of how much does it dance to the tune that the Chinese government and Communist Party wants it to dance to,” said Fidler, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
However, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs and Centre for European Studies at Renmin University, said Washington’s withdrawal might have prompted China’s cooperation, according to South China Morning Post.
“More is expected from China after the US withdraws – about the investigation of the source, vaccine innovation, and collaboration to deal with and combat … the virus,” Wang said.