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The WHO went to China to open its coronavirus origin investigation – and didn’t even visit Wuhan once

Published Aug 29th, 2020 10:32AM EDT
Coronavirus Origin
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  • Mysteries surrounding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic have yet to be solved, as the World Health Organization’s investigation doesn’t seem to be advancing at all.
  • Two WHO officials who spent three weeks in China preparing the terms for the upcoming investigation did not even visit Wuhan, the place where the virus is believed to have originated.
  • The WHO hasn’t been able to provide any useful information about this trip, though it did say that the purpose of the visit wasn’t to inspect Wuhan.
  • The organization confirmed that a team of scientists from various countries will head to China, but it’s unclear when that part of the investigation might actually happen.

We’re more than eight months into this pandemic and we still have no idea how it all started. Several studies indicated that the initial Wuhan novel coronavirus epidemic may have begun even earlier than December and that the virus reached other parts of the world, including Europe and America, well before the first cases COVID-19 cases were confirmed. China has been often criticized for its lack of transparency in the early days of the pandemic and in the months that followed, and for not showing any willingness to investigate who the first COVID-19 patients were. The initial origin story involved a Wuhan market, where the virus was said to have jumped from animals to humans. China changed that story a few months ago, claiming that the Wuhan market was not a source. At the time, China also made it clear that the virus had not escaped from a Wuhan lab, as some conspiracy theorists and politicians have claimed. Weeks later, China again tried to shift the origin story, suggesting that the virus might not have even originated in China, but rather arrived from Spain.

In all this process, the World Health Organization has failed spectacularly to provide any answers. It didn’t seem inquisitive enough in the early days, allowing China to set the tone when it comes to COVID-19 revelations. Some criticized China and the WHO for the late announcement that the virus was spreading from human to human. The WHO failed to work quickly in its efforts to identify the actual source of the illness, and the newest development seems to indicate that we may never learn how this massive pandemic started. The WHO officials who went to China recently spent three weeks in the country without even setting foot in Wuhan. Instead, the pair supposedly held meetings with officials in preparation for an actual investigation that might follow sometime soon.

An international team is expected to visit China, including Wuhan, later this year, WHO sources told The Telegraph. It’s unclear how long it’ll take to actually get the investigation underway. After all this time, it’s unclear what the organization even hopes to gain from its investigation, if anything.

The paper learned that the two officials who traveled from Geneva to Beijing had a “productive” trip. They spent the better part of two weeks quarantined in a hotel outside Beijing, where they conducted multiple calls every day with Chinese counterparts. That’s the kind of call you could make from anywhere else in the world, given that many people still work from home because of the pandemic. The WHO officials also had video conversations with senior scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Again, there is no reason to be in China to participate in a video call.

The WHO researchers also spent time in meetings in Beijing with their counterparts, though it’s unclear what they accomplished. It’s unlikely that a team of two people would have gotten to the bottom of the novel coronavirus’s origin, even assuming full cooperation from China. Sources told the paper that two officials trying to figure out the origins of COVID-19 instead of a full team of researchers is preposterous, and that may indeed be the case. The optics certainly don’t help the WHO, which is defending its tactics.

“The purpose of their visit was to prepare the conditions for the expert group that will travel to do the study,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters, per The New Zealand Herald. “So it wasn’t to start the study, but rather to develop the terms of reference and to prepare the conditions so that the international group can have … the things it needs to start the study.” It’s unclear how well they could have prepared without setting foot in Wuhan.

“It was not their intention to start the study, and they had no plan to travel to Wuhan,” he said, adding that the team of experts that will go to China for the full investigation will “naturally” begin in Wuhan.

Still, these statements make it sound as if the WHO officials could have easily handled all this without even traveling to China in the first place. Also, the WHO officials did little to explain what was actually discussed and decided during the visit. We have no idea when the actual investigation will start, and the continued evolution of the pandemic could further hinder plans to look for Patient Zero.

The WHO’s unwillingness to detail the recent visit to China prompted more criticism. “It is another disturbing incident of the WHO – which is charged with safeguarding global public health – putting the political sensitivities of a member state above the public health interests of the world,” Australian MP Dave Sharma told The Financial Times.

“The WHO delegation sat in Beijing for three weeks and got nowhere near Wuhan,” a senior US official told the paper. “Any chance of finding a smoking gun is now gone.” That’s an exaggeration of the facts. Again, it’s unlikely that a team of two people would have reached any meaningful conclusions.

What seems to be certain is that more countries want in on the investigation, according to remarks from WHO’s Executive Director, Michael Ryan. “An international team is being pulled together right now, and many countries have expressed interest in participating in that,” he said during a virtual press briefing on Thursday, per India. “We look forward to having a team on the ground, and yes, it is our expectation that the international team will visit Wuhan and will engage in supporting and collaborating with our Chinese colleagues on the necessary studies to understand the origin of this virus.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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