The risk-free upsides for China in the WHO’s coronavirus origin quest

13-Jul-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China’s decision to allow in a WHO-led coronavirus investigation could offer a risk-free boost to its reputation and help to find an answer to a big question how the disease began.

That was the assessment of health specialists, who said the answers were needed to prevent future outbreaks.

Two World Health Organization experts, an animal health specialist and an epidemiologist, are expected to arrive in Beijing this weekend to meet Chinese scientists and doctors to discuss the terms of a WHO-led mission to trace the origin of the coronavirus.

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China agreed to the mission after a resolution passed unanimously in May at the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, calling for the WHO to work to identify the virus’ animal source. Countries like Australia and the United States had previously led a call for a broader investigation into China’s handling of the outbreak, which was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Sara Davies, an international relations professor specialising in global health governance at Griffith University in Australia, said China might have given approval because WHO officials were clear that the investigation was not about laying blame.

“This is a scientific investigation, and that is a deliberate attempt to establish a clear marker that this is not about fault. It’s not the type of investigation that Australia and others were proposing earlier this year,” Davies said.

The message was underlined earlier this week when Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stressed that the search for the origin would not just be in China.

Zhao said China had reached a “fundamental consensus” with the WHO that tracing the source of the disease should take place around the globe, a process that the WHO suggested would be ongoing and involve many countries.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said China was honouring its promise to allow a WHO-led investigation when domestic outbreaks were under control.

Wang added that China would benefit by addressing persistent claims about the pathogen’s origins.

“There have been some doubts and rumours internationally, like the conspiracy theory concerning the laboratory in Wuhan. The investigation will help quash such rumours,” he said.

US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have blamed China for the global pandemic, alleging that the virus was engineered in or leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan and accusing Beijing of a cover-up. They also attacked the WHO for its slow response and not grilling China enough for its role in the pandemic.

Davies said China may see cooperation with the WHO as a way to project an image of “having executed a very strong public health response”.

“They want their vaccine to be trusted. They want to be able to be seen in this area as a leader, so you could argue that it would be quite important as well to be seen as open and transparent and upholding the values of scientific rigour,” she said.

China has prided itself for going all out to contain the epidemic despite being the first country to be hit. It closed national borders, cut international flights and imposed strict quarantine for people entering from overseas.

Nevertheless, after almost two months without a case, Beijing reported more than 335 cases related to a wholesale food market from early June.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said China had an incentive to find the origin of the disease because it would help it identify the animal culprit and “completely break the transmission chain”.

“These incentives [for China] become stronger given the recent outbreak in Beijing. Like the Wuhan outbreak, there are many unknowns about the outbreak in Beijing, including where the virus is from. There are many hypotheses on the origin that can be addressed by the WHO team,” Huang said.

Wang said the Beijing outbreak would provide new clues, since markets seemed to have accelerated transmission of the virus both in Wuhan and Beijing.

“We have more data and can have more comprehensive exchanges,” he said.

But the question is how the mission will be seen elsewhere in the world.

“The WHO has to make sure that they are not being used and the organisation has agency in this,” Davies said.

David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs the WHO’s Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for Infectious Hazards, said the WHO was working with China to allow for more transparency.

“There’s been an insistence that there be transparency and a look back to see what has happened, but that doesn’t stop us from working on the current pandemic and it doesn’t stop future research to understand what the real risks [are] and figuring out solutions to decrease these risks,” Heymann said.

What counted, he said, was work in the future to identify the areas of high risk for humans of virus crossover, research that could be discussed during the mission.


Category: China

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