For the first time, a World Health Organization delegation has begun investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. What findings do the scientists hope to gain – and how freely will they be able to conduct their work?
After a little over a year, nearly 2 million deaths and more than 92 million infections, Peter Ben Embarek is finally at the place where it all began. People wearing protective suits greet the Dane and his group of experts. After flying in from Singapore, they have finally made it: On Thursday, they arrived at Ground Zero in Wuhan.
“Getting there is already part of the success,” Ben Embarek said on the phone two days earlier. The food safety expert is leading a World Health Organization (WHO) mission to clarify a question that is as scientifically relevant as it is politically explosive: Where did the coronavirus come from?
“The plan for the mission is to do a detailed reconstruction of the original phase of the pandemic, starting with the cluster in Wuhan,” Marion Koopmans, a Dutch participant in the delegation, wrote to DER SPIEGEL in an email. “Understanding the origins of the virus is important if only to better counter the next pandemic – ‘Disease X,’ as it has been termed.”
The mission is a delicate one for the Chinese government. Beijing has an interest in the WHO’s findings because it, too, wants to prevent the next pandemic. Officially, Chinese leadership has also consistently advocated a review of the events in Wuhan.
Those same leaders, though, are also likely aware that their officials made mistakes and covered them up, especially in the initial phase of the pandemic. But there is no talk of such missteps in the country today. Beijing has given itself perfect marks in the fight against COVID-19.
Within the Chinese state apparatus, it appears that two camps are wrestling with each other – with health policymakers on one side, who favor an investigation, and power players on the other, who are keen to avert criticism.
Last week provided a preview of the difficult conditions the WHO team faces in the country. The delegation had originally planned to travel to the country and commence its work at the beginning of January – with two members already on the way. But then, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that Beijing hadn’t yet finalized the necessary approvals. Instead of landing in China, one of the two scientists returned to his home country and the other instead remained in a transit country. Beijing’s ambivalence had been exposed.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed afterward there “might be some misunderstanding.” And Beijing issued the visas shortly thereafter.
Now, thought, the team is in Wuhan, though two of them were still having trouble making it to the city from Singapore this week. The 13 scientists who landed represent different disciplines, including virology, veterinary science and infectious medicine, and they come from several continents. Germany is represented on the team by Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute, the country’s center for disease control. Germany’s best-known virologist, Christian Drosten of Berlin’s Charité Hospital, has said he also would have liked to join the group, but claims he missed the deadline to apply.
WHO first began gathering information on site in China back in January 2020. At the time, Director General Tedros had nothing but praise for his host and even had his photo taken with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, thus helping to fuel criticism that WHO is too close to China. Now, for the first time, a thorough investigation is to be carried out into how the virus jumped to humans and spread.
“A question that I get a lot is: Isn’t this far too late?” delegation member Koopmans wrote in the email. “It is clear that there are things you can do immediately after an outbreak is detected that are no longer possible.” It may indeed be too late to look for traces at the notorious Huanan seafood market, for example. It was already cordoned off and subsequently disinfected on Jan. 1, 2020.
“I think there are still a couple of things we can do,” says Dominic Dwyer, a delegation member from Australia. “Laboratories and hospitals often store specimens for long periods of time. So, there may well be samples in freezers in Wuhan or elsewhere in the country that haven’t yet been examined,” he says. It’s also “very important to talk face to face with the scientists and doctors that are involved in this work.” Those discussions could help the mission get an idea of what findings are still missing and the studies that have already been initiated.
The WHO team plans to begin that work during the 14-day quarantine period that team members must observe, just like anyone else currently entering China. Afterward, the scientists will have another two weeks to conduct research in the country.
One person who is likely to be of great interest is Shi Zhengli. The virologist heads the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and is sometimes referred to by her nickname “Bat Woman.” Shi has been fighting rumors since the beginning of the pandemic that the pathogen escaped from her laboratory and was possibly even created there.
“I spoke with Shi Zhengli when I was in China in July during (the) preparatory mission,” says team head Ben Embarek. “She was very welcoming and, of course, wanted to support the mission and have meetings with us. So by all means, I’m sure we will have good discussions with her.”
One crucial question is whether the Chinese authorities will allow the mission to examine all the evidence and move freely. “That’s the understanding,” says Ben Embarek. “We are in the process of making detailed plans.” Ben Embarek did not confirm rumors that the team is only allowed to assess things that have been given the green light by China. “I have not heard anything like this, no,” he says.
But clearly no one has any true clarity on that point yet. Addressing the possible pre-sorting of material, scientist Dwyer says, “Look, I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve heard it as well.” But even should that happen, he says, the mission’s final report could still point to gaps in the research – and what was likely withheld.
Dwyer is hoping the mission will be able to ignore the politics surrounding their mission. “Yes, there’s sort of a natural interest of the Chinese in saying, ‘Oh, it came from outside of China,’” he says. “My response to that is that, well, it’s about working out the science of that, ignore the politics. If the facts support that idea, fine. If they don’t support it, fine. I’m not a politician.”
Chinese state media outlets have spent months building up the narrative that the virus may have been imported from abroad – through frozen meat, fish or seafood, for example.
And there is evidence that SARS-CoV-2 began circulating outside China earlier than previously thought. In December 2019, for example, a man was placed in intensive care in a hospital in the north of Paris after he began coughing up blood. A group of researchers studying the case later tested a stored respiratory sample from the man, which came back positive for the coronavirus.
A 25-year-old woman who went to the doctor with a skin condition and gave a sample on Nov. 10, 2019, could actually by Italy’s first COVID-19 patient. Researchers led by Milan dermatologist Raffaele Gianotti found genetic remnants of the pathogen in her skin tissue.
Other Italian scientists have also discovered early traces of SARS-CoV-2. Researchers who tested sewage samples from northern Italy for the virus, for example, received positive results in 15 samples, with the oldest dating back to Dec. 18, 2019. In another study, blood was tested for antibodies that had been taken from around 1,000 patients as part of a lung cancer screening. Coronavirus antibodies could be detected in 11.6 percent of cases, with the earliest dating from September 2019. This could “rewrite the history of the epidemic” the scientists concluded in the Tumori Journal, a scientific review.
It’s still too early for that, though. Each of these studies could contain methodological flaws.
“We are trying to better understand what happened between the original source of the virus and its initial spread in humans,” says Ben Embarek, head of the China mission. “There is a black hole in the story.”
The scientists want to examine exactly which animal products were sold at the Huanan market, and they also want to look at stored tissue samples from patients. He says that only serious cases were registered at the beginning of the pandemic and that nothing was known yet at that point about mild or asymptomatic progressions of the disease.
Also of interest to the scientists could be Tongguan in the southern part of Yunnan province, whose limestone caves are home to bats that carry coronaviruses. Virologist Shi Zhengli collected samples in these caves and brought them to Wuhan.
Back in 2012, six workers fell ill with a mysterious lung disease at a now defunct copper mine in Tongguan and three of them died. A year later, a previously unknown pathogen was identified in samples from the mine: RaTG13, which is the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2 to date, with 96.2 percent similarity.
Journalists from the BBC and Associated Press tried to visit the mine at the end of 2020, but both teams were pursued and harassed. The BBC found the road blocked by a truck that had allegedly broken down and the journalists were unable to reach the mine. The hardliners in the Chinese apparatus had prevailed.