KEY POINTS

  • WHO announced it sent a 2-man advance team to China
  • The motive is to prepare for a larger investigation into the origins of COVID-19
  •  No word on launch date or makeup of an investigative team

The World Health Organization (WHO) is about to undertake a thorough investigation with Chinese and international scientists to trace the origins of COVID-19 and learn how it managed to jump the species barrier from animals to humans.

In a WHO press briefing Monday, Aug. 3, officials said a two-person team was sent to China last month to lay the groundwork for a larger investigation. It was not disclosed when the full mission will begin or who will be participating in the investigation.

The work of the advance team, two specialists in animal health and epidemiology, was mentioned by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said, "As a result of these efforts, WHO and Chinese experts have drafted the terms of reference for the studies and program of work for an international team, led by WHO."

The investigation may be unable to resolve the argument of the origin of the coronavirus. It could drag on for years. Scientists must first home in on where the animal to human leap occurred and then determine the behavioral factors that made the leap possible. That is a task that may prove to be impossible based on investigations of past outbreaks.  

"There are gaps in the epidemiologic landscape and what is required is going to be a much more extensive retrospective epidemiologic study to look at those first cases and clusters in Wuhan," Mike Ryan, WHO Health Emergencies Program executive director, told SCMP.

Ryan hinted surprises are possible,  saying just because the first cases had been identified in the city does not mean that was where the first human infections had occurred. He added that studying the first known cases in Wuhan would allow the investigative team to work backward "in a much more precise way" to find potential animal sources.

"Otherwise it’s like needles in a haystack," he said. "You can sample every animal in China and outside, but you might have no luck because you are guessing."

Published reports have the earliest cases of COVID-19 occurring in early December while some unpublished government data that was reported by the SCMP pushed the time frame back to as early as mid-November.

International scientists published some analyses of the virus' genome sequences that move the date of the leap further back into time with one study suggesting September as the date of the crossover.

Controversy is sure to follow any WHO investigation. Members of President Donald Trump’s administration have suggested the virus originated from an accident at a Wuhan laboratory that studied bat viruses, not a Wuhan food market, as preliminary studies have suggested. Trump has accused the WHO of favoring China and threatened to withdraw U.S. support from the WHO over its handling of the pandemic.

China argues against the assumption that the virus was of Chinese origin, admitting that while it was first detected in Wuhan, it could have originated elsewhere. Chinese officials have said any WHO investigation should include other countries.

A new cluster of cases has sparked mass coronavirus testing in the central Chinese city of Wuhan A new cluster of cases has sparked mass coronavirus testing in the central Chinese city of Wuhan Photo: AFP / Hector RETAMAL