The World Health Organization is preparing a team to investigate the origins of the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic, hoping they can start their work “soon”, the organisation announced at a press briefing on Monday.
“We want to believe that we will have a team on the ground. It is absolutely necessary that our international team can join their Chinese colleagues,” said Mike Ryan, responsible for WHO emergencies programme and leading the team responsible for the international containment and treatment of COVID-19.
The international team is made up of epidemiologists, virologists and researchers with expertise in public health, animal health and food safety. However, the names have not yet been released by the health agency. They will be tasked of going back to the origins of the virus and find out how it was transmitted to humans.
While most researchers generally believe that the virus originated from a bat, there may have been an intermediate animal host that allowed it to jump to humans and which is still an unknown.
The World Health Assembly requested already in May that WHO should “continue to work closely with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and countries, as part of the One-Health Approach, to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population.”
A possible source is a wet market in Wuhan, where it arose in animals, jumped to humans and then spread via human-human transmission. China has temporarily closed wet markets but the WHO seems not inclined to work for a permanent ban on such markets.
The United States – one of the most affected countries in the world by the pandemic with almost 260,000 dead – has publicly accused Beijing of hiding information. President Trump has also criticized WHO for being too “soft” with the Chinese authorities and bending to their will. Other countries, while being less critical, still suspect Beijing of slowing down the process.
So far, the WHO has managed to send an initial two-person team to China in July to lay out the “ground work” for a thorough investigation into the origins of Covid-19, but are awaiting the arrival of the larger team put together by WHO.
“This is very important” and “we would like this team to be deployed as soon as possible and therefore we are building the relationship between the Chinese side and the international team,” said Ryan, adding that the two teams had regular videoconferences.
“We therefore expect, and have assurances in this regard, from our colleagues in the Chinese government that the field part of the mission will be facilitated and carried out as quickly as possible in order to reassure the international community on the quality of the scientist part of the investigation.”
“We all need to know the origins of the virus, we need to understand where it came from, also to know where it could reappear in the future and I believe our Chinese colleagues are as eager as we are to find an answer,” Ryan said.