W.H.O. Team in Wuhan to Trace Coronavirus


More than a year after a new coronavirus first emerged in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived on Thursday in the central city of Wuhan to begin hunting for its source.

The investigation by the team of 10 scientists is a critical step in understanding how the virus jumped to humans from animals so that another pandemic can be avoided. Getting answers will most likely be difficult.

The Chinese government, notoriously wary of outside scrutiny, has repeatedly impeded the arrival of the team — and the investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full inquiry could take months, if not longer. The team must also navigate attempts by China to politicize the inquiry.

Here’s what to know about the investigation.

Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political stonewalling.

Seemingly worried about drawing renewed attention to the country’s early mistakes in handling the pandemic, Chinese officials have used a variety of tactics over the past year to hinder the W.H.O. investigation.

After resisting demands from other nations that it allow independent investigators onto its soil to study the origin of the pathogen, China finally let two W.H.O. experts visit in July to lay the groundwork. Then it promptly placed the team into quarantine for 14 days, forcing its members to do some of their detective work from a distance.

They were not permitted to visit Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.

For months, China delayed approving a visit by a full team of experts, frustrating the health agency’s leaders. When the visit seemed to be finalized earlier this month, it fell apart at the last minute when Beijing failed to provide visas for the visitors, according to the health agency. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, issued a rare rebuke of Beijing at a news conference, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delays.

The Chinese government has demanded that Chinese scientists oversee important parts of the inquiry. It has limited the global health agency’s access to important research and data. The full W.H.O. team will be required to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Wuhan before it can begin sleuthing.

Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the inquiry will most likely be more political than scientific.

“You want this investigation to be thorough, not subject to politicization, independent and transparent,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”

Despite the troubles, the W.H.O. says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.

“W.H.O. has been committed to investigating the virus origins from the outset,” Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “We ask all countries to support these efforts by demonstrating openness and transparency.”

The pandemic has hurt China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing did not do more to contain the crisis in its earliest stages. So Chinese propagandists are trying to use the W.H.O. inquiry to help shore up China’s image and to portray the country as a mature superpower.

“China is open, frank and sincere,” Xinhua, the official news agency, said in a commentary on Wednesday about the investigation.

The W.H.O. itself has also been attacked by the Trump administration for seeming to bend to China’s will, even as the United States has faced criticism for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Before the team landed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter on Tuesday: “The @WHO was corrupted by China’s influence, and bought cheap. WHO investigators still can’t access Wuhan — a year after the first cases were reported?”

That same day, Global Times, a state-run tabloid, wrote that the pending visit showed that China “has always been dedicated to making its contribution to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent, responsible attitude, and a spirit of respect for science.”

The Chinese government has tried to push unfounded theories that the virus emerged outside China. Chinese scientists have suggested, without evidence, that packaged food from overseas may have brought the virus into China or that the pandemic could have started in India.

The heated political climate will make it difficult for the W.H.O. to carry out an independent investigation, experts say.

“The major concern here is the origin of the outbreak has been so politicized,” said Mr. Huang, the global health expert. “That has really narrowed the space for the W.H.O. to have an independent, objective and scientific investigation.”

Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed research.



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