Experts from the World Health Organization went to the Chinese province where it all started for the first time and the conclusion was that an investigation like this takes years.
One year after the first patients were identified in China, and on the eve of the Chinese New Year celebrations, next Friday, the team of 13 scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO), involving virologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, zoologists, and food security experts, who first traveled to the city of Wuhan, leave with little certainty about the origin of this new coronavirus. This was conveyed to journalists at a press conference held yesterday at a hotel in that city, given together with the leader of the team of Chinese researchers who accompanied the mission.
For the media present, the preliminary data reported by the leader of the WHO team, the Dutch zoologist Peter Ben Embarek, leaves much to be desired, “were not surprising”. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo, present at the conference, even gives the impression that the questions and doubts of journalists were far more than the answers that scientists had to give. But Peter Ben Embarek clarified that the origin of a virus needs much more research, which is why these results are normal and even predictable.
For now, and after almost a month of arrival in Wuhan – which occurred on January 14, and marked by the episode of two of the scientists having been barred at the entrance for having revealed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 -, the conclusions left were that the coronavirus is of animal origin; that it is unlikely to have left a laboratory; that it is not certain that the initial transmission focus was the Wuhan seafood market, and that there is no evidence that the virus was already circulating in the community before December 2019. The only certainty they maintained was that bats will have been the main transmitter of the new virus.
The WHO team of researchers left for this second trip to China – as the first took place in July last year, six months after the disease was declared, but during which they were unable to visit Wuhan, where the pandemic is believed to have started. – with a scientific objective, but also with the mark of two major political accusations about that country: the first, that the Chinese Government would have responded late to the disease since it was taken for granted that the first cases would have started to circulate in the community in early November, the second that the virus would have come out of a laboratory, which was even taken advantage of by former US President Donald Trump. But the WHO team spokesman began by stressing that they had found no information or evidence that “the virus was already circulating in the community before December 2019”, reinforcing, but without giving certainty, that “it is very unlikely that virus has left a laboratory “.
Controversies and conspiracy theories were thus removed, leaving only the scientific question. As the Dutch scientist explained to the media present at the hotel, the first two weeks of this team of experts were spent in quarantine and working only by videoconference with Chinese scientists. The last two weeks were filled with visits to the Wuhan seafood market, the high-security laboratory where bat coronaviruses were studied, and the hospitals where the first patients were treated.
Last week, Peter Ben Embarek said that China was providing data that had never been shown before, but without specifying which ones, defending itself at the same time from the lack of responses to the fact that it is facing a pandemic and a world in demand magical answers about its origin, which in terms of science is not possible.
That said, Peter Ben Embarek explained the methodology adopted by the team he leads, saying that four possible routes of transmission of the virus have been analyzed. The first is that of direct transmission from the animal to man, the second through an intermediate host, the third through frozen products, and, finally, the fourth, that of possible escape from the laboratory.
According to the researcher, the second hypothesis is the most likely. Regarding the latter, Ben Embarek stressed that it is unlikely, but that he will be present again in the next investigations. The Dutchman also said that bats remain as the animal that may have given rise to this new coronavirus, which will have been passed on to man by an intermediate host, by another animal, which has not yet been identified.
The head of the Chinese team, epidemiologist Liang Wannian, stressed that pangolins, mink, and cats continue to be studied as possible reservoirs of the virus’s origin, as 11,000 tests carried out on other animals in 31 provinces of China have given negative results this coronavirus. The Chinese epidemiologist also underlined the hypothesis that the coronavirus may have been passed on to humans through contaminated frozen food – a theory that has been supported by the fact that the virus has been detected in food.
It is not known when the WHO will return to China, but Peter Ben Embarek left the guarantee that “this type of investigation can take months, even years”.