Two experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) visited China on Saturday and Sunday to lay the groundwork for upcoming investigations into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
While not many specific details have been published about the WHO mission, the agency did say that an animal health expert and an epidemiologist were sent to Beijing to work out logistics for an upcoming international mission led by the WHO into the virus origins.
WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris said one of the key aims of the investigation would be to “look at whether or not it jumped from species to human, and what species it jumped from.”
The first infections that would lead to the COVID-19 pandemic were discovered late last year in the city of Wuhan in China, drawing much attention to fresh food markets and, in particular, human consumption of bats. This led the Chinese government to crack down on wildlife trade in the country and enforce strict containment measures in the city, effectively slowing down the spread of the virus.
Since then, discoveries of earlier cases have prompted scientists to adjust their initial theories of the origins of the virus.
The working theory currently circulating around the scientific community suggests that the virus might have originated in bats before getting transmitted to another mammal such as a pangolin or civet cat, only after which it was then transmitted to humans.
However, efforts into coronavirus research have proved difficult as the WHO finds itself caught in a political power struggle between China and the United States.
Over the last few months, the US and China have experienced tensions over China’s handling of the pandemic. Several US officials have accused the eastern power of holding on to vital information and failing to warn the international community of the outbreak, which in turn caused other countries to have delayed responses to the early spread of the pandemic.
Last week, the US officially moved to withdraw from the WHO after accusing it of siding with the Chinese over their early handling of the outbreak as well as other politically sensitive issues, such as the inclusion of Taiwan in the health agency. This withdrawal, which would take effect in July 2021, would mark the loss of the WHO’s biggest financial contributor and put the organization back by at least US$500 million in funding.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a statement last Thursday addressing the WHO mission, saying, “the WHO needs to be free to do its real work. We need to make sure the right people are there to engage in this investigation.
“We need real answers, not a perfunctory political solution. This is about science, not politics, and the Chinese Communist Party needs to come clean with the world about this virus,” he added, expressing concerns over China’s “credibility problem.”
However, Chinese officials have responded to Pompeo’s statement, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian calling it “very hypocritical.”
In a regular press briefing on Friday, he defended China’s contribution and support of pandemic research.
“China is undertaking an arduous task of preventing both case import and domestic resurgence, and we are the first to invite WHO experts to discuss science-based origin tracing,” he said, adding that, “It is our contribution to global public health cooperation as a responsible major country.”
On the other hand, he accused the US of “shirking its own responsibilities and undermining global solidarity” by announcing its departure from the WHO and “politicizing matters related to the pandemic and smearing others.”
During the course of the pandemic, multiple foreign governments have called on the WHO to lead investigations into the origins of COVID-19, with many also joining the US in criticism of China.
China’s reputation also took a hit after an Associated Press investigation revealed private messages and internal recordings showed complaints made by WHO officials over China’s delay in releasing information. According to this report, the WHO was prompted to side with China publicly in an effort to convince it to cooperate with them more openly.
This mission over the weekend was seen by some as a way for China to display more transparency and cooperation in coronavirus research efforts.
Huang Yanzhong, a member of the Chinese Council on Foreign Relations said that a transparent investigation by the WHO would “rebuild its reputation and show it is an authoritative neutral actor in global health governance.”
He also stated that there is an incentive for China to cooperate in this mission “to show that they are cooperative and forthcoming”, before adding that failure to do so would “tarnish China’s image.”
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