Health authorities in Beijing are bracing to finally allow a team of WHO scientists to visit Wuhan and other parts of the PRC as international curiosity about the origins of the virus appears to peak alongside the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
According to the SCMP, groundwork for the mission was originally laid back in July and the WHO at the time said the international team would arrive “in a matter of weeks”. However, it appears that original mission was insufficiently "transparent", as the US and Europe almost immediately started to plot a return visit.
The team assembled by the WHO includes a wide range of experts from those focused on animal welfare to virologists aiming to examine the route of zoonotic transmission that (according to Beijing) kicked off the outbreak at a 'wet market' in the city of Wuhan, which was not far from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Biosafety Level 4 facility, that many suspect is the true source of the outbreak. Scientists include Ken Maeda of Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Vietnamese scientist Hung Nguyen (the co-leader of the Animal and Human Health Program.
Though many suspect that the virus infected humans after originally infecting bats, the exact route that the virus took from the animal kingdom to infecting at least 60 million humans.
The scientific mission’s phase one work centers around Wuhan, the city where the first cluster of cases originally emerged late last year. While much ink has been spilled about the role of local leaders in trying to cover up the virus, only to see it swiftly overwhelm the city's medical infrastructure, necessitating a brutal lockdown that lasted for nearly 3 month, the global scientific community actually doesn't have a great understanding of how this all started.
Even the SCMP acknowledges that the role of the 'wet market' was never proven, while also pointing to the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is the centerpiece of a "conspiracy theory" claiming that the deadly virus leaked out of the laboratory after a worker was accidentally infected. A lack of “analytical epidemiological study” has made it difficult to say anything about the early days of the outbreak with conviction.
Though that hasn't stopped scientists and social media companies from dismissing 'conspiracy theories' about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology that just happened to be situated near the epicenter of the outbreak (it was also known that the lab was being used to study potentially dangerous strains of coronavirus to try and head off any other SARS-like outbreaks).
Last time around, the WHO team declined to investigate the laboratory. They declined, despite a US government report pointing to the lab as the most likely source of the virus. Could that change this time around?
With Joe Biden apparently on his way to the White House, we suspect that holding China accountable for the virus will no longer be a high priority of the American government in Washington.