On January 28, a 10-member team from the World Health Organization (WHO) began their hotly anticipated investigation in Wuhan, China looking into the question of how the COVID-19 pandemic originated. The team arrived in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019, on January 14 but first underwent a 14-day quarantine, during which they communicated remotely with Chinese scientists to start their work. On January 28, the team, including experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar, and Vietnam, wrapped up quarantine and was ready to begin in-person research and interviews.
“In the coming days in China, while observing China’s COVID-19 prevention procedures, they will continue carrying out exchanges and cooperation on origin-tracing, including having discussions and field trips,” Foreign Ministry spokespersons Zhao Lijian said. “All their activities will need to be science-based with the utmost priority of preventing future risks and protecting people’s safety and health.”
China insists that it “has taken the lead in conducting origin-tracing cooperation with [the] WHO and has since been in close communication with it in an open, transparent and responsible way.” But there are serious questions about what sort of access will be given to the WHO team, and how the Chinese government may seek to control their findings.
In an early warning sign, the investigation got off to a rocky start. The team’s visas were not ready in time for their originally scheduled departure. That incited WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to issue a rare rebuke of Beijing, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delay.
Now that the WHO researchers are in China, they face another issue: restrictions on their access to research materials and interview subjects, including the earliest COVID-19 patients.
Chinese authorities have also taken to threatening relatives of early COVID-19 victims who are seeking to talk to the WHO. “I hope the WHO experts don’t become a tool to spread lies,” Zhang Hai, whose father died of COVID-19 on February 1, 2020, told the Associated Press. “We’ve been searching for the truth relentlessly. This was a criminal act, and I don’t want the WHO to be coming to China to cover up these crimes.”
An in-depth AP investigation found that China’s government had placed tight restrictions on research into COVID-19 origins, even when that research is being done by scientists backed by the government:
The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military, the AP has found. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping… Authorities are severely limiting information and impeding cooperation with international scientists.
Against that backdrop, there’s little hope of free access for a team of foreign researchers.
For China’s leaders, the question of COVID-19’s origins has become a hot-button political issue – exacerbated, in no small part, by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s preference for using racist nicknames to refer to the virus. Though all parties insist that they are focused on the science, Beijing’s clear preference is for the science to conclude that COVID-19 did not, in fact, originate in Wuhan. And Chinese officials and media have been advancing narratives to that end for months.
In one of the most eyebrow-raising examples, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson seemed to imply that the virus might have originated in a U.S. military lab. On January 18, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying suggested that the U.S. should “should open the biological lab at Fort Detrick, give more transparency to issues like its 200-plus overseas bio-labs, [and] invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States” – a comment widely taken by Chinese netizens to confirm a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 originated in a U.S. laboratory. (It’s important to note, however, that Hua herself did not directly make this connection. She was responding to U.S. speculation that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab.)
Conspiracy theories aside, China’s general narrative is that COVID-19 outbreaks occurred around the world in the fall of 2019. “Reports have emerged from Australia, Italy and many more that the coronavirus was found in multiple places in the autumn of 2019, and the timeline for the first outbreak is being updated constantly,” Hua said on January 18.
Crucially, the WHO is frequently held up to lend credence to China’s claim. “The WHO” and “WHO scientists” are repeatedly referenced as praising China or backing its own statements on COVID-19 issues, whether that mean China’s response, Chinese-made vaccines, and or the question of origin tracing. Given that, the WHO – including the investigation team now in Wuhan – will be under intense pressure from China to come up with a report Beijing can use for its own purposes.
In a case in point, China may be pushing the WHO to highlight frozen food packaging as a potential vector for COVID-19 transmission – which would add credence to the narrative that the virus was imported into Wuhan from abroad. A report in the Wall Street Journal said a draft of new WHO recommendations on COVID-19 warned that “the virus could spread via the cold chain and be reintroduced into countries where the pandemic is under control.” The theory that contaminated packaging could start an outbreak has been dismissed by many outside experts, but continues to be promoted by Chinese officials. Some Chinese scientists have used the theory to claim that the virus originally was imported into China on frozen food packaging.
It’s worth noting that no other country had an outbreak on the same scale prior to Wuhan’s crisis in January 2020. And as the Wuhan case showed, it’s impossible to cover up the unchecked spread of COVID-19 through a major population center – no matter how hard a government might try.
The WHO team itself acknowledges the immense scrutiny from all sides, as a scientific question has taken on immense political significance. “The eyes of the world are focused on this, the opinions of the world are focused on this,” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who is part of the WHO delegation, told CNN. But she also pointed out that no one should expect definitive answers from the team’s trip to Wuhan: “I think we really have to manage expectations, if you look at some of the earlier quests for the origins of outbreaks, they have taken years to complete.”