Scientists travel to Wuhan to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2

World Health Organisation convened an international team of scientists travel to Wuhan to study the origins of SARS-CoV-2

Photo by Edward Jenner

By Lois Barker
Sub-edited by Jasmine Wing

A team of scientists have travelled to Wuhan to improve communication and to increase the exchange of information in the wake of SARS-CoV-2, which was first discovered in Wuhan.

China has received intense criticism for not allowing a transparent probe of SARS-CoV-2’s origin earlier. Peter Daszek, a disease ecologist at the EcoHealth Alliance, is part of an international team charged by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and will be finally investigating SARS-CoV-2.

Daszek had previously attempted to visit but got as far as Doha, Qatar before the trip began to unravel. With the new variants of the virus spreading across the world, China was imposing new additional safety requirements for incoming passengers-with no exceptions for invited scientists.

Daszak has worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) for many years and has shared a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health before it was cancelled by the Trump administration.

There are debates over the validity of the project as there is said to be unrealistic expectations that may soon find the animal host from which SARS-CoV-2 jumped into yuans, or make some other breakthrough discovery. Also, there is too little time to do actual science on these trips.

It took WHO many months to put together the group and agree with China on the terms of the mission. WHO’s Mike Ryan says “Understanding the origin of the disease it is not about finding somebody to blame” and “we are looking for the answers here that may save us in the future, not culprits”.

A lawyer at Georgetown University who specialises in global health policy stated the WHO panel’s biggest problem will be that the Chinese government carefully chooses what it gets to see. “No matter how hard local and international propaganda battle.”

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, agrees that politics make it “very challenging to do work independently, transparently, and thoroughly.” But the transfer of power in Washington, D. C., might make things easier he adds. If president Joe Biden manages to cool down the rhetoric with China, “That could create a more favourable environment for the scientists to do their work.”

The composition of the group is 10 scientists from 10 countries, including Qatar, Vietnam and Russia and this reflects the enormous global impact of COVID-19.

Members of the international WHO-convened team to study the origins of SARS-CoV-2 are:

Prof. Dr. Thea Fisher, MD, DMSc(PhD) (Nordsjællands Hospital, Denmark)
Prof. John Watson (Public Health England, United Kingdom)
Prof. Dr. Marion Koopmans, DVM PhD (Erasmus MC, Netherlands)
Prof. Dr. Dominic Dwyer, MD (Westmead Hospital, Australia)
Vladimir Dedkov, Ph.D (Institute Pasteur, Russia)
Dr. Hung Nguyen-Viet, PhD (International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Vietnam)
PD. Dr. med vet. Fabian Leendertz (Robert Koch-Institute, Germany)
Dr. Peter Daszak, Ph.D (EcoHealth Alliance, USA)
Dr. Farag El Moubasher, Ph.D (Ministry of Public Health, Qatar)
Prof. Dr. Ken Maeda, PhD, DVM (National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan)

Scientists feel confident that SARS-CoV-2 came from bats, but they are not sure which subspecies. There is also the question of whether it jumped straight to humans or via another animal.

One of the stops will be at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many of the first cases appear to have occurred.

The researchers may also visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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