A much-anticipated scientific investigation into the origins of the coronavirus began on Friday, but only virtually, as an expert team assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) met online with its Chinese counterparts to launch the inquiry which has been called for by more than 100 countries.
The mission, a WHO-led collaboration between international and Chinese experts to uncover the animal origins of the pathogen, was expected to include a visit to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the outbreak’s first epicentre. But when that will happen remains unclear.
WHO health emergencies programme executive director Mike Ryan said on Friday that he “fully expects” the international team to “deploy on the ground”, but the virtual meeting was an important first step in a “politically intoxicated environment”.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
“It’s important that we do an investigation and it’s important that we build confidence between scientists, between governments … this type of thing will happen again in the future and we have got to build trust and the mechanisms that allow us to do this together,” Ryan said.
“It is difficult to do this work in a politically intoxicated environment. It is hard for scientists to do what they have to do and want to do in situations like this,” he said, adding that starting virtually was “always part of the plan” so the experts could meet and review ongoing research.
The origins of the coronavirus have become a political football, with the United States trying to blame the pandemic on China and accusing the WHO of pandering to Beijing in the early weeks of the outbreak.
Beijing has meanwhile pushed back on suggestions that the virus emerged in China, with diplomats and top scientists including leading infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan saying that just because the virus was first identified in China does not mean that was where it emerged.
In a statement on Saturday, China’s National Health Commission said Chinese experts presented the virtual meeting their research into the transmission of the virus, including its animal origins, while the international group introduced global research on the virus’s source.
“The two sides agreed to continue to carry out exchanges of scientific research on the origins of the virus,” the commission said.
On Friday, Ryan suggested that research could take place outside China, noting that the WHO wanted “a full-scale, prolonged, sustained, comprehensive set of scientific investigations in China, in other countries”.
“We’ve seen the issues with mink and with other animals potentially outside China with the potential for us to infect animals who can then infect us back,” he said.
“It’s a complex, complex issue and we need to get the right answers so I believe this is the method by which we will get the best answers and that’s what we need, the best answers, not just any answer that satisfies political needs of speed and the political need of investigation.”
The WHO did not name the scientists taking part in the mission, but said earlier last week that they were leaders in their fields with a “very broad range of scientific skills” and a “broad geographic base”.
The mission is expected to include both medical and animal health experts affiliated not just with the WHO but also the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health, along with specialists from other countries.
Several countries have pressed for the investigation to start, after more than 130 WHO member states, including China, passed a resolution in May that featured a call for the inquiry. In July, a three-week scoping mission, in which two WHO experts travelled to China, laid the groundwork for the larger investigation.
The larger mission of international experts had been expected to start its investigation in “a matter of weeks” after that, the WHO said in July.
At a special meeting of the organisation’s executive board last month, representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Australia called on the WHO to send the team and be transparent about the details of the mission.
But on Friday Ryan did not say when the international experts would arrive in China.
More from South China Morning Post:
This article Coronavirus: WHO and Chinese experts launch origins mission – online first appeared on South China Morning Post