For months, China Opposed Allowing the World Health Organization experts to trace the origins of the global epidemic in the country, concerns that such an investigation could attract the government’s hasty attention to combat the outbreak.
After the global turmoil, the Chinese government finally, Giving permission A team of 14 scientists to visit laboratories, Centers for Disease Control and live-animal markets in the last 12 days in Wuhan city.
But instead of scolding, WHO experts praised the Chinese authorities on Tuesday and Parts of his narrative were supported, including some controversial.
The WHO team opened the door to a theory embraced by Chinese authorities, stating that it is possible that the virus has spread to humans through shipments of frozen food, an idea that has worked with scientists outside China Has gained little traction. And experts promised to investigate those reports that in late 2019, a long-standing demand from Chinese authorities could cause the virus to exist outside China.
“We really should go and search for evidence of earlier circulation wherever we are,” Marian Kopmans, a Dutch virologist from the WHO team, told a three-hour news conference in Wuhan.
Some scientists worry that shifting the focus to other countries may distract the focus of the investigation. Determining what happened in the early days of the outbreak in China is considered important to avoid another epidemic.
The team also espoused the idea that the virus may have accidentally leaked from a lab run by the Chinese, an assumption that some skeptical scientists say is worth exploring. This theory differs from the widely maligned one imposed by some Republicans in the United States, who claimed that a laboratory in China manufactured the virus for use as a bio-weapon.
WHO, by design, is beholden to its member states and hit for a long time Diplomatic voice In dealing with the Chinese government, which is notorious for outside investigations. The investigation is still in its initial stage – it may take several years – and WHO officials have promised a rigorous and transparent examination of data and research by China and other countries.
Nevertheless, the findings announced on Tuesday led Beijing to a public relations victory as it comes to early efforts by United States officials and elsewhere to conceal the outbreak.
“This is the most authoritative support China has received in terms of its official statement,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mr. Huang said the WHO should keep pressing China for data and access.
“A trip is not enough time to conduct a thorough investigation,” he said. “They are doing all the work within the parameters set by the Chinese government.”
The team did not report major successes but said it found significant clues. The virus was circulating for several weeks before appearing in Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, Where some early groups were initially told, experts said. It is most likely that the bats emerged and spread to humans through another small mammal, although experts said they have not been able to identify the species.
“All the work that has been done on the virus and trying to identify its origin points to a natural reservoir,” Peter K. Ben Ambreck, a WHO with food safety scientist who is leading the team of experts Are, said news conference.
Dr. Ben Ambrek said it was “highly unlikely” that the virus may have emerged from a lab in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses.
The team met last week with leaders from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory, and Drs. Ben Ambreck said that “it was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place,” Citing security protocols.
WHO experts tried to focus their commentary on the scientific aspects of the mission on Tuesday. But investigations have often been kept away from politics.
Some officials in the United States and other Western countries have doubted the WHO’s independence of investigation, arguing that China wants to control the outcome. Government Frequent delays By WHO experts and sought to limit the scope of its mission. And officials are in control of virus-related research in China, raising concerns that they may prevent the release of embarrassing information.
The Chinese government has tried to shift the focus elsewhere, suggesting that the virus may have originated overseas. Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, recently suggested The United States should allow the WHO to send investigators as part of its investigation.
Chinese officials at the news conference on Tuesday strongly propagated the idea from abroad, arguing that the discovery of the virus’s origin should be focused on locations outside China.
The investigation “will not be banned at any location,” said Liang Wanyan, who led the team of Chinese scientists who assisted in the WHO mission. He said Chinese researchers could not find any evidence that the virus was widespread in China before December 2019.
During their visit to Wuhan, members of the WHO team said they were trying to clarify politics and promised to ask tough questions. In Wuhan, where he presented two weeks of quarantine before starting field work, he gave interviews to the news media and tested photographs for coronoviruses. He took to social media to bring more transparency to his conversations with Chinese scientists, posting photos and comments.
Experts have repeatedly praised their Chinese counterparts, saying that the government acted with good faith to provide access to important sites including laboratories and markets. At the news conference on Tuesday, the experts were cordial and did not challenge the statements of their Chinese hosts.
The team will not only solve difficult scientific questions to face pressure in the coming months but will also demonstrate that they are conducting a fair and difficult investigation.
“China’s strategic narrative is now, ‘This has been part of China’s investigation, and we have accomplished it, and let’s move on.” Daniel R. Lucy, an infectious-pathologist at Georgetown University.
Dr. Lucy said that demonstrating credibility would require experts to produce a breakthrough.
“If the team doesn’t come up with anything,” he said, “people also say that it’s all just pretense.”
Albi Zhang Contributed to research.