For months the World Health Organization (WHO) has been negotiating with the Chinese government, last week the departure was postponed at the last minute. Now the time has come: ten experts from different countries have arrived in China to investigate the origins of the corona pandemic.
The scientists, including the Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, will investigate how the virus has passed from animals to humans and where and when this happened. A scientific monster job, full of political sensitivities.
From animals to people
The most likely option is that the virus originated in bats, Koopmans told the NOS before leaving. “But we hope to gain more insight into the process before that, how long it has played and via which route the virus reached humans. Our task is to make a deep reconstruction of that beginning.”
The virus was first diagnosed in humans in the metropolis of Wuhan at the end of 2019. That’s where the experts – after two weeks of mandatory quarantine – start their research.
One of the places they will visit is the wild animal market where a first large group of people became infected. It could be one of those people patient zero was: the first person to contract the virus. Examination of samples of animals sold on the market should reveal whether certain animal species carry the virus and may have transmitted it to humans.
Another possibility is that the market is the former super spreading event was from a virus that had already originated. To find out why, the scientists will analyze blood samples dating from the months before the official outbreak at the end of 2019. If they find antibodies in them, they know that the virus has been circulating in the region for some time.
The ultimate goal is to reconstruct the path the coronavirus traveled before it passed from an animal to a human. Information that the scientists gather in Wuhan can lead to other regions in China, or even abroad.
This investigation does require the cooperation of the Chinese authorities. It remains to be seen to what extent the WHO scientists will be free to do their work. The Chinese government sees the question as to the origin of the corona virus partly as a question of blame, and prefers to shift that debt off.
For example, it is known that Chinese authorities withheld information at the start of the epidemic and that journalists and doctors who expelled from the school were punished for this. More recently, state media in China suggested that the virus did not originate in their country, but was already circulating in Europe. WHO experts call this claim “highly speculative”.
Still, WHO scientists have decided to collaborate with their colleagues in China. Meetings have been going on for months about the design of the research and some of the preliminary work – such as taking samples – is done by Chinese scientists.
Some Western governments, the American first, are skeptical about what that means for the research results. But virologist Koopmans assumes that Chinese scientists will be able to freely share information. “The mission has been prepared on both sides. China has given permission to do it this way. They know exactly about the plans, so we’re going to see.”
The WHO team is expected to stay in China for four to five weeks. That is enough for the first observations, but probably not for conclusive answers to the research questions of the scientists. Finding the origin of a virus can take years. In addition, there is a possibility that it will not work at all.
But scientists are used to such prospects: things hardly ever go really fast in their field. Thoroughness is paramount. “A scientific quest”, is how Marion Koopmans described the mission of the WHO team in an interview with the Chinese news channel CGTN. Not with the intention of blaming, she emphasized. “But to understand and learn for the future.”