Where does the coronavirus come from? WHO experts have traveled to China to investigate the truth. Whether the world will ever know is not entirely up to them.
The Chancellor chose drastic words. The Corona-Krise was the biggest challenge since World War II, said Angela Merkel in a televised address last March. Only a few days later she agreed António Guterres at. The Secretary General of the United Nations also rated the epidemic as the biggest crisis since the Second World War. It will lead to a recession that probably has no parallel in recent history, said the Portuguese.
What might have seemed like a call to Kassandr last year is reality today: The corona pandemic has become a turning point, an epoch-making event. It has slumped global economic performance, plunged millions into poverty, and stressed democratic communities. In the future, people will probably remember a time before the pandemic – and a time after it.
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A simple question
Against this background, the investigations of a group of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) in China probably no less than the question of the decade, perhaps even the question of the century.
Where does the virus come from?
So simple and yet so complicated is the question to which WHO experts are supposed to find an answer. The answer depends on whether and how future disease outbreaks can be prevented and contained. But observers warn against too much hope. They fear that the experts could come back empty-handed – and that the world will be in the dark for a long time to come.
The WHO has been negotiating for months Peking via the expert mission. In May, all 194 member states of the organization decided to conduct an independent investigation into the origin of the virus. China also agreed. But negotiations on the modalities of the mission were slow. The Chinese side was given the right to approve every single member of the ten-person team.
In January, China stopped WHO
The mission should actually start in early January. But Beijing stopped entry at the last minute – after some experts had already left. Difficulties still have to be overcome in order to advance internal preparations, said a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a nebulous manner. What exactly that meant remained unclear.
One of the ten WHO experts is Fabian Leendertz. The only German in the team works on Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and specializes in zoonoses, i.e. infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. The RKI suggested him for the expert mission. Actually, Leendertz should arrive in China on Thursday. But for family reasons he canceled the trip.
Leendertz warns against excessive expectations of the WHO team. The experts have to be quarantined for two weeks after their arrival. Then there are only around two weeks left until the New Year celebrations in February, when practically everything comes to a standstill in China. That is probably enough to visit two or three places, says Leendertz: “But there won’t be much more.”
Starting point Wuhan
As the WHO confirms on request, the expert mission in Wuhan start. In the central Chinese city, the first cases of infection occurred in a market at the end of 2019. The goods in the market were destroyed by the local authorities at the beginning of last year. How much of it has been studied by Chinese scientists is not known. That means: The chance to secure important evidence of the origin of the virus may already have been missed.
But it seems unclear which other places the WHO experts will visit. According to RKI expert Leendertz, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a laboratory researching coronaviruses, is also on the experts’ wish list. According to the American secret services, it cannot be ruled out that the virus escaped from the WIV in an accident. China denies this. But there is no confirmation that the laboratory can be visited, says Leendertz. “At least I don’t know which places are visited and in which order,” says the German. The WHO left an inquiry about the schedule and route of the expert team unanswered.
It is quite possible that the WHO team will come back without any concrete results, says Leendertz. However, the expert emphasizes that nothing else can be expected from the first China mission. The WHO has drawn up a plan for long-term and sequential research. According to this plan, a WHO team could visit China again at a later date, says Leendertz. The importance of the mission for the public is clear to the RKI expert: “The more results we can deliver, the less room there is for speculation.”
No high hopes
François Godement also has almost no hope of new knowledge. The Frenchman works as a China expert at the Paris think tank Institut Montaigne. Last year Godement accused the WHO of “hasty submission” to China in a blog post.
“I have very low expectations of the WHO mission,” says Godement. On the one hand, this is because it is objectively difficult to find out the origin of an epidemic. But on the other hand it is due to the People’s Republic.
The well-connected expert has heard that the WHO experts failed to enter the country last week because the team wanted to take a cameraman from the press department to China. Beijing categorically rejected this. “If that is true,” says Godement, “it shows that Beijing is determined to control every media product that this WHO mission brings to light.”
China has its own theories of origin
The Chinese authorities have left no doubt in the past few weeks what they think about the origin of the virus. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in an interview in January that more and more research suggested that the pandemic was triggered by unrelated outbreaks in different parts of the world. He did not provide details.
In March of last year, a spokesman for the Chinese State Department claimed without any evidence that it could have been the US Army Coronavirus to Wuhan. And it was only in December that Chinese party media tore an appearance by Alexander Kekulé on Markus Lanz’s talk show out of context – and used statements by the virologist as alleged evidence that the pandemic did not even originate in Wuhan.
But Beijing is not only trying to spread the narrative that the virus does not come from China with disinformation. The Chinese authorities are firmly preventing research into the origin of the virus. In December a team from the British BBC traveled to Yunnan. The southern Chinese province is home to bats that carry a variety of coronaviruses. Chinese scientists, including researchers from WIV, have taken large amounts of samples from these bats in order to examine the viruses.
The BBC wanted to investigate the connection between Yunnan and Wuhan – and the hypothesis that the coronavirus escaped from the laboratory in Wuhan in an accident. But the British journalists didn’t get very far. They were persecuted all the time. In addition, cars kept blocking their way. Eventually, the team gave up the research trip – after being trapped in a field for over an hour.