WHO must demand answers from China about Covid-19 crisis

Origins of the coronavirus still remain a mystery more than a year after the pandemic wreaked global havoc

In an obscure wet market in the cultural city of Wuhan, a mysterious virus first surfaced at the end of 2019.

Hospitals became overwhelmed as the outbreak in China turned into an epidemic before going global. The year of the plague had begun.

Thirteen months later, at least 1.73 million people worldwide have died from Covid-19 with nearly 78 million infected, data from the World Health Organisation has revealed.

Economies across the planet have also been trashed with the cost spiraling to US$11.7 trillion, according to the international charity group Oxfam.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest threat the world has faced since World War II,” Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, told a media briefing back in April.

Since then, intensive scientific research has laid the groundwork for two working vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. A third, pioneered by the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical group and Oxford University, is likely to be approved before the end of 2020.

Wet market

Yet one crucial question remains unanswered, the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. Leading virologists have suggested that the most likely scenario is that the virus jumped naturally from bats to humans, possibly through an intermediary species.

Indeed, that would add credence to the wet market theory and the close proximity of shoppers to an array of exotic wild creatives.

But that thesis is now being challenged.

“So, here we are, 12 [or] 13 months after the first recognized case of Covid-19 and we haven’t found the animal source. [This is] one more reason to investigate alternative explanations,” Dr Daniel Lucey, a specialist in infectious diseases at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, said earlier this month.

Research highlights the problems containing the global pandemic. Photo: Flickr

Under a multinational mandate, the WHO has the authority to do just that. But will its scientific team be allowed unfettered access to Chinese data when it travels to Wuhan in the next few weeks?

Chinese Professor Shi Zhengli, a world-renowned expert in bat coronavirus strains, has issued an open invitation to visit the city’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The controversial laboratory is close to the wet market, fuelling unsubstantiated reports that there was a leak. Still, China’s ruling Communist Party government has yet to confirm Shi’s offer, made during an interview with the BBC.

For Dr Lucey, the answer to the Covid-19 conundrum will be in the evidence unearthed during and after the outbreak in China, which killed 4,776 people and infected 96,000.

Viral outbreak

“They have the ability, resources and motivation, so, of course, they have conducted animal and human studies … it can be found and I think it’s quite possible that it has already been found. But then the question arises, why is it not revealed?,” he said.

Again, finding out how a local, viral outbreak morphed into a global pandemic in a matter of months has become paramount.

In April, an influential ministry attached to the European Union accused China of running “a global disinformation campaign,” a report leaked to the media showed.

The white paper by the European External Action Service was due to be circulated among the 27-member states before the offending paragraphs were airbrushed out.

“China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image. Both overt and covert tactics have been observed,” the original version stated. 

Pressure from Beijing, threatening trade ties if the EU pushed ahead with the critical document, resulted in a watered-down version. “[It] was eventually released with some criticism of the Chinese government rearranged or removed,” the Reuters news agency said.

Distorting history has been turned into a fine art by the CCP. On December 10, 2019, the first official victim of what would become known as Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Hubei province in Central China. 

It did not warrant a single paragraph in the country’s tightly-controlled state-run media, despite previous infections in November.

Epidemic warning

As cases started to rise, Dr Li Wenliang and Ai Fen, a director at Wuhan Central Hospital, raised the alarm. But instead of being praised for their vigilance, they were reprimanded by health officials for warning of a possible epidemic. 

Li was later accused of “making false comments on the internet” and threatened with legal action by the security services. He would later die of the virus on February 7.

Before then, the Wuhan Health Commission notified hospitals on December 31 of a “pneumonia of unclear cause” after a surge of 27 new cases. Finally, the WHO was informed about the mysterious outbreak.

“We spent 730 million yuan [US$103 million] to build a reporting and early warning system for the CDC [or China’s Center for Disease Control] after SARS. It did well for the avian flu and plague, although they were of much smaller scale than the coronavirus,” Yang Gonghuan, the former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, said.

Covid-19 has strained hospitals around the globe. Photo: Creative Commons

“For the whole of December when the disease happened, I have learned that the system was not put into use. I was very surprised [that happened] at the time. This [failure] actually exemplifies a lot of the problems that are happening in China today,” she told the South China Morning Post without going into further details.

The “early warning system” was rolled out after the botched attempts to contain the SARS coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, between 2002 and 2003. 

Moves to beef up international health regulations and the role of the WHO were put in place after China’s Ministry of Health failed to share information with the rest of the world about “a dangerous new type of pneumonia in Guangdong province.”

More than 8,000 people were infected in 29 countries with a death toll of 774, according to the WHO, before the outbreak was finally eradicated. But those numbers pale in comparison to Covid-19.

Censored doctors

“The revised IHR [international health regulations] did not stop the Chinese government from actively suppressing information that might have slowed or stopped the coronavirus [Covid-19] outbreak. Local police punished and censored doctors and other whistleblowers who sought to raise [an] early alarm over the novel coronavirus,” Thomas J Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang, academics at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in March.

“Between January 12 and 20, government officials chose not to report clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. The government also failed to share the basic public health information that might have helped thousands of Chinese people avoid infection,” they wrote in a commentary for Foreign Policy, a CFR publication.

In the weeks and months ahead, these are the questions the WHO team will need to answer after its forensic investigation in Wuhan. The world and the families of the nearly 2 million dead deserve to know the truth.