Joe Biden’s election has made its first positive impact on a coronavirus ravaged world. An international team of experts is on its way to China to research the origins of the virus, the head of WHO said today.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a short and carefully worded statement about the visit that was very controversial and has taken a long time to come.
“We are pleased that an international team of scientists – distinguished experts from ten institutions and countries – are commencing their travel to China to engage in and review scientific research with their Chinese counterparts on the origins of the virus,” he said.
The Chinese government has long resisted the visit because of President Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that China should be held accountable for allegedly unleashing the COVID-19 scourge upon the US and the world.
Beijing flatly denies this. It says the virus could have originated in many spots outside China but was detected first in the city of Wuhan.
The 194-country WHO was tasked in May 2020 with conducting an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” to investigate the “source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population”. But Beijing delayed progress.
Finally in December 2020 when it was clear that Trump had lost in the Electoral College, China said it would allow a WHO-led team of experts to visit in January 2021. But there were some tough negotiations about what it would do.
At the moment, it seems that the team which arrives in China later this week will have broad remit but under the watchful eyes of Chinese experts. It will visit Wuhan including a now closed wet market where the virus is thought to have originated.
There are doubts over its utility one year later when forensic traces will have been lost. The team may also not be allowed to enter the high security Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is one of the world’s foremost laboratories. Trump alleged that the virus may have escaped from there into the city. That enraged Beijing.
Chinese experts think the novel coronavirus entered the country with frozen food imports from Europe and started as infections in workers handling cold storage facilities at harbors. However, there is a broad Western consensus that it began in Wuhan by somehow moving from bats to humans,
After the US Senate’s confirmation of Trump’s defeat on January 6, China opened its doors to the international experts. On January 9, Zeng Yixin, deputy director of China’s National Health Commission, said, “We enthusiastically support the expert group from the WHO to conduct an investigation into the source (of the coronavirus).”
The prospect of Biden taking over may have softened Beijing’s earlier delay tactics because Trump wanted to use the WHO probe to blame the coronavirus on China.
Now, there may be a backdoor agreement that the international team of experts will also visit other countries where China thinks the coronavirus may have originated well before being identified in Wuhan. It says an increasing body of research suggests that the pandemic may have been caused by separate outbreaks in multiple places in the world.
“The origin tracing may involve more countries. The WHO needs to conduct similar studies in other countries and regions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday.
These investigations are likely to take a long time depending partly on the political pressures on the experts. Meanwhile, Biden will get some pressure from Tedros to bolster WHO’s COVAX facility which has been created to ensure that poorer countries receive enough vaccines quickly and vaccination drives get underway.
Tedros hopes to “create the greatest mass mobilization in history for equitable vaccination,” by bringing together governments, manufacturers, civil society, and religious and community leaders.
“Next week at the WHO Executive Board, I will be encouraging all countries to fulfill their pledges to COVAX. I call for a collective commitment so that within the next 100 days, vaccination for health workers and those at high-risk in all countries are underway,” he said.
That is much easier said than done since conducting vaccination drives, particularly in poorer countries, are notoriously hard and can take decades, as for smallpox and polio.
Biden’s team has already said that he supports the COVAX facility, shunned by Trump. He may now have to include Tedros’s request for vaccination in his own first 100 days agenda.