More than a year after the first cases of coronavirus were detected and eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted the creation of the mission, the team of foreign experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) that will investigate the origin of the covid is already in Wuhan, the first focus of the pandemic.
Not without incident: two members of the group were not allowed to enter China at the last minute, after a serological test in Singapore – from where the mission flight in Wuhan departed – showed the presence of antibodies, as confirmed by the WHO. The presence of antibodies, which is detected by serological tests, is used to determine if someone has had the disease; Instead, PCR tests are used to detect if a person is infected. The two experts have had to remain in Singapore, without it being clear so far whether they will be allowed to enter the country. Asked about the case, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, has limited himself to assuring that “the requirements for controlling the epidemic must be scrupulously respected.”
Upon landing at Wuhan’s Tianhe Airport, scientists were able to see first-hand the rigorous health security measures applied to all travelers arriving from abroad to China: they were greeted by personnel dressed in protective gear and immediately subjected to a PCR test, as stipulated by the national protocol to try to prevent new waves of the disease.
That same protocol requires that investigations on the ground have to wait yet 14 days. Like all those arriving from abroad, the 10 experts will have to keep strict quarantine in a hotel during that time. Although they will not be wasted days. In this stage, work on videoconferences will be progressing together with their Chinese counterparts, according to the National Health Commission in Beijing.
“Only these last few days traveling to Asia have I been tested more frequently than in the whole of last year in my country. PCR, serology, temperature controls. Absolutely no relaxation. Very different from how we manage things in Europe, ”tweeted one of the team members, Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans.
During their stay in China, which is expected to last around a month and is mainly limited to Wuhan, the experts will study, among other things, samples taken at the Huanan seafood market, with which approximately two-thirds of them were related. the first cases detected at the beginning of the pandemic, and which was initially suspected to be the origin of the disease. The scientists will also interview traders in that market and medical personnel, and examine samples taken from patients in hospitals in the early days of the pandemic and during the weeks leading up to it.
Scientists are not expected to come to clear conclusions during the mission, although WHO, which considers the mission a “priority”, sees it as an important step forward on the way to knowing how the virus passed from some animal – a bat, probably – the human being and avoid new diseases in the future. “Personally, I don’t expect everything to clear up after this trip. But it is really a necessary step ”, declared to Reuters from Singapore one of the members of the group, the Vietnamese Hung Nguyen, an expert in food risks in markets.
“We are looking for answers that can save us in the future, neither guilty nor people to be held responsible,” said the director of the WHO emergency program, Mike Ryan this week.
The experts’ trip, which the WHO originally hoped could have taken place last summer, has been surrounded by controversy for months over China’s opacity and suspicions that it was doing its best to postpone the mission. Last week came the latest delay: the general director of the international organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, denounced that Beijing had not issued the necessary permits, and declared himself “very disappointed”, in what China considered a “misunderstanding”.
Accusations from the United States
The United States, which accuses the Asian country of having withheld information at the beginning of the pandemic, has demanded that Beijing allow international scientists to carry out their work with transparency. This mission is the third by the WHO to China since the pandemic began: in the first, in the initial weeks of the crisis, the experts traveled to Wuhan, but they were limited to the places they could access; in the second, they did not leave the capital.
Beijing insists that, although the first cases were detected in Wuhan, the virus did not necessarily jump from an animal to a human being there. As he points out, it is very likely that the virus circulated among people before it was identified in that city of 11 million inhabitants. To do this, it is based on some studies – which other experts have questioned – that point to the presence of the pathogen in Europe in months prior to the outbreak of the crisis in Wuhan, and to the detection of viruses in the packaging of frozen products from abroad. .
The arrival of the mission comes as China, which had managed to control the pandemic almost completely, registers the highest number of coronavirus cases since March (138 confirmed cases with symptoms, of which 124 are community-transmitted infections), and this Thursday it announced the first death from covid in eight months, bringing its official death toll to 4,635. Most of the new infections have been detected in Hebei province, which almost entirely surrounds Beijing. An outbreak is also gaining strength in the Heilongjiang province, bordering Russia, which has declared 40 new infections with symptoms and 50 asymptomatic.
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