Saturday week marks the first anniversary of the start of Wuhan’s tough 76-day lockdown. One year on, more than 86 million people have been infected worldwide and in excess of 1.8 million lives lost. And although we may have vaccines, we still really don’t know how Covid-19 originated.
After international polemics, more political blame game than science, over who is responsible for what Donald Trump called the "China virus", and the concocting of alternative Chinese narratives that veer towards their own Trumpian conspiracy theories, at last a World Health Organisation team will be admitted to China on Thursday to investigate the pandemic's origins.
It was initially aiming to enter in early January but what Beijing called a “misunderstanding” over visas delayed it. China’s initial stonewalling has been a reflection of its attempts to play down the anniversary, with journalists reporting edicts discouraging coverage while the regime has run a campaign to highlight what is purported to be the sterling role of leader Xi Jinping in defeating the virus.
Last month Zhang Zhan, the 37-year-old citizen journalist who documented Wuhan's ordeal, was jailed for four years . And in a new museum in Wuhan narrating the city's valiant response to the coronavirus, no mention is made of the whistle-blowing of Ai Fen, one of the first doctors to sound the alarm, or Shanghai doctor Zhang Yongzhen, who shared the Covid genome with the world without official approval.
Yet the WHO team is not there to apportion blame for the management of the pandemic. Its vital concern is with the origins and mechanics of the transmission route to better understand and prevent future pandemics. Its scientists will start in Wuhan and its animal markets, widely but not conclusively seen as the initial source of transmission from animal to human. The Huanan meat and animal market was visited by many of the people first diagnosed with Covid-19.
Many scientists believe the disease originated in bats, which have been found to carry genetically similar virus strains. The WHO mission will also investigate the animals sold at the market, including foxes, raccoons, sika deer, cats and mink, and trace the animals’ journeys through China and across borders. It will also look at Wuhan’s hospital records, to find out whether the virus was spreading before December 2019.
Crucial details about research under way in China have yet to be made public, but officials have consistently suggested that the origin of the virus is outside the country and only arrived later in Wuhan, possibly via cold chain goods.
China must understand, however, that it has nothing to gain from continuing to obstruct the inquiries except enormous reputational damage. There is too much at stake to play politics.