Tracking the origins of the Covid-19 crisis is rapidly descending into a political circus. It seems the World Health Organisation has failed to learn the lessons from the past as it stumbles into the future.
On Tuesday, the WHO unveiled the preliminary results of a report into the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in Wuhan more than a year ago.
The 28-day fact-finding mission of 14 scientists appeared more concerned about launching an Indiana Jones-style hunt for the “host species” across “borders” and “regions” instead of a forensic investigation of China’s role.
By doing this, the WHO can be accused of falling into a well-prepared trap by the ruling Communist Party.
“The evidence that it comes from outside China is weak, but if the politicians in China want to turn that into a talking point there is nothing you can do about it,” Dominic Dwyer, who was part of the WHO team, told The Australian Financial Review.
There were always concerns that the initial bungled response by President Xi Jinping’s government to the outbreak in Wuhan would be lost in the discussions. But it would have been impossible to predict that a new line of inquiry would emerge, adding weight to Beijing’s alternative narrative that Covid-19 originated from outside the country.
The WHO did little to dispel that theory during a media briefing which lasted nearly three hours.
Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the mission, confirmed that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 probably came from a “host species.” He also stressed that it could have crossed “borders” before arriving in the Chinese city.
In addition to ruling out a leak at the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology, he also raised the possibility that frozen food products could be a source of transmission.
Again, this would back up Beijing’s claim about “imported cluster cases,” according to research that has not been independently verified.
“We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans [or under which conditions],” Embarek said.
The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States had previously issued statements that there was no evidence to justify the scenario.
Opening the door to that theory will be seen as a propaganda coup for Beijing. The switch in focus to other parts of the world will also delight Xi’s administration.
“We’ve done a lot of work in China and if you map that back it starts to point towards the border and we know that there is very little surveillance on the other side in the whole region of South East Asia,” Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, told the BBC.
But the rush to find new frontiers risks overlooking the history of the pandemic. Officially, the virus surfaced in Wuhan in Hubei province during early December 2019. The Huanan Seafood Market was linked to the outbreak although research has since shown similar infections were being recorded in other parts of the city.
As the epidemic in China morphed into a pandemic, data started filtering through that the first cases of the new strain of coronavirus could have occurred in November.
Leaked documents seen by The South China Morning Post in March last year suggested the information was based on Chinese government statistics.
The report alleged that at least 266 people were infected and under medical surveillance in Hubei province. The accusations were repeated by The Independent, a British newspaper, in November.
“We know that there are reports of early suppression of cases, and the ‘whistleblowers’ dealt with rather severely. But in fairness, the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 are non-specific and even now, without confirmatory testing, it is easy to mistake this for another disease,” Jonathan Mayer, of the University of Washington’s department of epidemiology, told The Guardian, a London-based newspaper, in March 2020.
Yet the question remains are these documents in the treasure trove of data that has been passed on to the WHO?
There are also Chinese accusations that Covid-19 could have been circulating in Italy and Spain, where traces of the virus were found in wastewater, at the same time as the Wuhan outbreak.
A study released in April last year also confirmed that the first deadly cases in the United States were earlier than reported and date back to February 2020.
The Chinese media immediately picked up on the news and have since been spinning it into a broader narrative that the virus was imported without a shred of evidence. Initial findings by the WHO have simply stoked up what are considered by many to be conspiracy theories.
“That the study could not find any evidence to determine the virus originated in Wuhan is to be expected as a fact-strengthening piece of evidence that the virus appeared in other countries before it was detected in Wuhan … For example, field studies [should] be conducted in Italy and Spain where there were infections much earlier than those detected in Wuhan. And in the United States, which also had infections weeks before the outbreak was first identified in China,” the state-controlled China Daily newspaper stated on Wednesday, despite stretching the official timeline.
Global Times, the state-run nationalistic tabloid, also jumped on the Beijing-backed bandwagon. “The US independently examining the WHO’s data? It’s the WHO who should examine the US data,” Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin said on the Chinese social media site Weibo, a Twitter-like online platform.
He was referring to a statement from the White House that the US had not been involved in the “planning and implementation” of the WHO investigation. Washington has always insisted on an independent review of the “findings” and underlying data.
“We wish the US side can, like China, uphold an open and transparent attitude, and be able to invite WHO experts to the US to conduct origin tracing research and inspection,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a media briefing, hammering home the Communist Party line.
Until the full report is released, this will continue to be China’s approach that Covid-19 was an imported disease. Dwyer, a member of the WHO mission and the director of public health pathology in the Australian state of New South Wales, put that argument into context.
While he agreed with the findings, the possibility that the outbreak started outside China was highly unlikely.
“A lot of that is fairly minor evidence, to be honest. I don’t think that’s strong enough evidence to say the virus was circulating around the world prior [to the outbreak in China],” Dwyer said, referring to reports of earlier cases in Italy and Spain.
“This was a joint study and things had to be negotiated, and those negotiations were heated at times. They certainly allowed us to visit the locations we wanted to visit, but there was no suggestion of any muzzling of commentary from WHO people,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
Secrecy runs deeps
What also has to be taken into account is that the WHO is not infallible and relies on governments being transparent. On January 14, 2020, that was brutally exposed. In a tweet, it said that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities” had “found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus.
Eight days later, the WHO announced that “there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but more investigation was needed.”
Secrecy runs deeps inside the echelons of the Communist Party. Questions still exist why the early warning system put in place by Beijing after the SARS epidemic in China back in 2003 failed to function.
“For the whole of December [in 2019] when the [Covid-19] 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,” Yang Gonghuan, the former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, said last year without going into details.
The world has paid a high price for this ineptitude. So far, at least 107 million people have been infected globally with the death toll rising to more than 2.3 million. For the WHO, it is time to end this political circus.