An international team of experts is heading to China to study the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, but not to assign blame for the pandemic, World Health Organization (WHO) leaders said on Monday.
The WHO officials spoke after Chinese authorities confirmed that the experts were set to arrive on Thursday, after a long, strained application process that had irritated the WHO in Geneva.
“Studies will begin in Wuhan, China to identify the potential source of infection of the early cases,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said earlier on Monday that “China supports scientists around the world to conduct global scientific study on the origin and transmission roots of the virus.”
The search for the origin of the virus is politically sensitive, as China fears being fingered as the culprit for the global spread of the novel coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease that it causes.
“Understanding the origin of disease is not about finding somebody to blame,” WHO health emergency chief Mike Ryan said in Geneva.
Rather, it was about finding out how exactly the virus crossed from animals to humans, he said. Factors could include climate change, urbanization, the exploitation of forests, or policy decisions that were taken decades ago, Ryan added.
“Let this mission and let other missions be about the science, not about the politics,” Ryan said.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has been open and transparent in communicating and cooperating with the WHO on the origin tracing work, showing a responsible attitude,” Zhao said on Monday, pointing to previous WHO expert visits last year.
For months, Chinese authorities have been casting doubt on whether the virus originated in China at all.
They point to unconfirmed reports that there may have first been possible infections in other countries. They also say traces of the virus on imported frozen goods are evidence that the virus could have come from abroad.
On Monday, Zhao reiterated that “the WHO needs to conduct similar studies in other countries and regions.”
However, many researchers suspect bats from southern China as the original source of the disease.
After their arrival, the experts from 10 countries, including the United States, Australia and Japan, will have to spend two weeks in quarantine before their work on the ground can continue.
They are also expected to travel to the central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first discovered over a year ago.
Members of the team lowered the expectations of their mission, pointing out that the main goal was to have exchanges with Chinese colleagues, in order to determine the investigative path.
“The first trip serves to look at all the existing data, to look at the work that is going on, and to make a plan for phase two,” German team member Fabian Leendertz told dpa.
The epidemiologist who works at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin added that phase two would serve to fill in remaining gaps, to create the foundation for developing hypotheses and, possibly, “to present a conclusive scenario.”