After a month of investigation, WHO mission returns empty-handed from Wuhan

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Feb 09, 2021, 11:03 PM IST
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File photo: Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team, tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease in Wuhan. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

The US, EU and several other governments have disputed China's claims, but Beijing keeps pushing for it

The coronavirus jumped from animals to humans, it wasn't artificially engineered and the pandemic probably began in December 2019. While we have known this for months, it is a pathbreaking finding of a month-long investigation for the WHO team in Wuhan.

They spent almost a whole month in Wuhan and yet they found no answers. The probe on the origin of the virus has failed to establish the origin.

Apparently, it's work in progress, but it's already too late to find clues or data, and the reason is mainly that China is leading the investigation and controlling the probe into China's role in the pandemic, which has resulted in no answers.

Beijing has been dictating the terms of this investigation. Chinese scientists have led the critical parts of the probe and now China has got the WHO to say what favours the Asian country.

The WHO team has wrapped up its investigation and are leaving Wuhan tomorrow empty-handed. After keeping the international media at a distance for weeks, the WHO team was finally supposed to speak to the press and reveal what they found. however, even here, China was calling the shots.

According to one reporter's account in Wuhan, there were total chaos 12 hours before the scheduled press conference. First, the WHo sent out emails to journalists inviting them for the press conference. Then, Chinese foreign ministry officials intervened and said no press conference has been planned. After that, the local government in Wuhan called the journalists for a press conference of their own and said it will happen at a different time to the original WHO press conference and won't be streamed online.

Finally, the WHO and Chinese officials decided to hold a joint press conference and appeared together before the press. However, it was the Chinese officials that got the bulk of the speaking time. The scientist leading the Chinese team presented the findings instead of a member of the WHO team.

The Chinese scientist told the press two key findings: the source of the virus remains unclear and there is not enough evidence to determine if the virus was spreading in Wuhan before December 2019.

The source and the spread are two key questions that could determine how the pandemic began and spread worldwide. However, the WHO team says there isn't enough evidence to answer these questions. Perhaps the only thing they are sure about is the lab theory. Whether the virus was engineered in a lab and unleashed on the world or if it accidentally leaked from a facility where scientists could have been conducting tests on samples.

The WHO Team rules out this theory and they won't be looking into it in the future.

"However, the finding suggests that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population and therefore is not in the hypotheses that we will suggest, that implies to suggest future studies into our work -- to support our future work into the understanding of the origin of the virus," Peter Ben Embarek, WHO foreign team leader in joint China-WHO mission said.

The scientific community has largely discredited these claims and the WHO Investigator didn't say anything new.

Important conclusions

First, the virus is natural in origin. Second, it jumped from animal to humans or it could have spread from frozen wildlife foods. These are the two theories on the origins that the investigators now want to look into. The theory that the virus spreads from frozen foods is very important because China has been aggressively pushing this claim even when the scientists remain unconvinced.

The WHO is caught in an escalating dispute over whether the coronavirus is spreading on frozen-food packaging, as China steps up efforts to promote the theory and the US, European Union and others lobby against extra checks on their goods.

Until now, the WHO has been caught in a battle between China and the West. Until last month, Beijing wanted the WHO to accept the virus spreads from frozen food packaging. It had even shared the draft of a new advisory with the Wall Street Journal but withdrew it later because apparently the draft wasn't cleared and sharing it was a mistake. The WHO officials say the draft wasn’t cleared for publication and was sent in error.

The US, EU and several other governments have disputed China's claims, but Beijing keeps pushing for it.

By blaming frozen foods, China could argue the pandemic never really began in Wuhan. It can also claim it may have been imported from elsewhere. In fact, they are already doing it by calling on the WHO to investigate the origins of the virus in other countries.

While the WHO probe was underway, Chinese diplomats have pushed conspiracy theories by blaming America for the pandemic. It began with a statement from Beijing. When a Chinese diplomat was asked about the Wuhan lab, she responded by asking America to open up its fort Detrick military lab to WHO investigators. Since that statement, Chinese diplomats have only pushed this claim more aggressively.

China's ambassador to the US gave an interview recently where he was asked if China has been transparent. He responded with more questions and asked if America will give access to WHO investigators. He even suggested that the WHO team should visit the US next. The Chinese diplomat says the virus should now be traced all over the world.

Now, this conspiracy theory has taken a life of its own with the Chinese state and the press calling on the WHO to dispatch experts to the rest of the world even when the WHO team believes that the virus could have spread from vendors selling products from farms — a reference to the wet markets of China.

China decided the terms for this WHO investigation and is now writing its future course in an effort to shift the world's attention away from what happened in Wuhan.