China resisted for months allowing World Health Organization experts to trace the origins of the global pandemic, fearing that such an investigation could draw attention to the government’s early missteps in dealing with the outbreak.
After a global turmoil, the Chinese government finally gave in, allowing a team of 14 scientists to visit laboratories, disease control centers and live animal markets in Wuhan City for the past 12 days.
But instead of despising, WHO experts on Tuesday praised Chinese officials and endorsed critical parts of their narrative, including some that have been controversial.
The WHO team opened the door to a theory put forward by Chinese officials, saying it was possible the virus could have spread to humans through frozen food shipments, an idea that has little resonance with scientists outside of China has found. And the experts vowed to investigate reports that the virus may have been present outside of China months before the Wuhan outbreak in late 2019, a long-standing request by Chinese officials.
“We should really be looking for evidence of earlier spread wherever it is,” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team, told a three-hour press conference in Wuhan where the experts shared their preliminary results with Chinese scientists presented.
Some scholars fear that shifting attention to other countries could cause the investigation to lose focus. Establishing what happened in China in the early days of the outbreak is seen as crucial to avoiding another pandemic.
The WHO is naturally committed to its member countries and has long since found a diplomatic tone in dealing with the Chinese government, which is notoriously resistant to external scrutiny. The investigation is still in its infancy – it could take years – and WHO officials have promised rigorous and transparent scrutiny of the data and research by China and other countries.
However, the results announced on Tuesday gave Beijing a public relations gain as it was attacked by officials in the United States and elsewhere for its initial efforts to hide the outbreak.
“This is the most authoritative support China has received in relation to its official account,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow on global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Huang said WHO should keep pushing China for data and access.
“A visit is not enough time to conduct a thorough investigation,” he said. “They do all the work within the parameters set by the Chinese government.”
The team did not report any major breakthroughs, but said they found important clues. The virus circulated a few weeks before it appeared in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where some of the earliest clusters were originally reported, the experts said. It most likely occurred in bats and spread to humans through another small mammal, although experts said they couldn’t identify the species.
“All the work that has been done on the virus trying to identify its origin continues to suggest a natural reservoir,” said Peter K. Ben Embarek, a food safety scientist at the WHO who leads the team of experts at the press conference.
Dr. Ben Embarek said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus accidentally leaked from a bat coronavirus laboratory in Wuhan. Some skeptical scientists say this idea is worth investigating, although it remains largely unfounded. This theory differs from a widely discredited one advocated by some Republicans in the United States who claimed that a laboratory in China manufactured the virus for use as a bioweapon.
Apr. 9, 2021 at 10:21 AM ET
The team met with heads of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory, and Dr. Ben Embarek said, citing the security that “it is very unlikely that anything can escape from such a place” protocols there.
The WHO experts tried on Tuesday to focus their remarks on the scientific aspects of the mission. But the investigation has often been overshadowed by politics.
Some officials in the United States and other Western countries have expressed doubts about the independence of the WHO investigation, arguing that China is trying to control the outcome. The government has repeatedly postponed visits by WHO experts and tried to narrow the scope of its mission. And authorities are firmly in control of research related to the virus in China, with concerns that they may try to prevent embarrassing information from being published.
The Chinese government has tried to shift the focus elsewhere and has continued to warn that the virus may have come from overseas. Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, recently suggested that the United States allow WHO to send investigators there as part of its investigation.
Chinese officials at Tuesday’s press conference strongly endorsed the idea that the virus came from abroad, arguing that the search for the virus’s origin should focus on locations outside of China.
The investigation will “not be limited to one location,” said Liang Wannian, who led the team of Chinese scientists who assisted the WHO mission. He said Chinese researchers had found no evidence that the virus was circulating on a large scale in China before December 2019.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press conference that the United States would wait for the WHO report before drawing any conclusions about its findings and how transparent Beijing had been to investigators.
During their visit to Wuhan, WHO team members said they were trying to stay out of politics and promised to ask tough questions. During their stay in Wuhan, where they were quarantined for two weeks before starting field work, they gave interviews to the news media and were photographed to be tested for the coronavirus. They turned to social media for more transparency about the visit and posted photos and comments on their conversations with Chinese scholars.
The experts repeatedly praised their Chinese counterparts, saying the government had worked in good faith to provide access to key sites, including laboratories and markets. At the press conference on Tuesday, the experts were cordial and did not question what their Chinese hosts said.
The team will come under pressure in the coming months not only to solve tricky scientific questions, but also to show that they are conducting a fair and tough investigation.
“China’s strategic narrative now goes, ‘This was the Chinese part of the investigation, and we did it and let’s move on,” said Daniel R. Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University.
Dr. Lucey said the experts would have to make a breakthrough in order to demonstrate credibility.
“If the team doesn’t come up with anything substantial,” he added, “there is a risk that people will say this is all just a show.”
Albee Zhang contributed to the research.