Investigators will travel to China and Wuhan in January, where the first cases were discovered 12 months ago in the pandemic that has struck the world and is causing huge global health and economic crises.
“The meetings that we have had with Chinese colleagues so far have been really productive and very good,” said Fabian Leendertz from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central control agency for diseases.
“I feel right now that the Chinese – both government and people – are genuinely interested in finding out what happened.”
The 48-year-old Leendertz is an expert on zoonoses – infectious diseases that cross species boundaries – and is one of the ten outstanding scientists commissioned by the WHO to find the origins of the novel coronavirus and to find out how it jumped from animals to humans .
A year after the first cluster was discovered in Wuhan, they will travel to China for the first time on a mission expected to last between five and six weeks – the first two will be quarantined.
The 10 scientists will also be accompanied by Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert on food safety and zoonoses.
“It’s not about finding a guilty country or a guilty authority,” said Leendertz. “This is about understanding what happened in order to avoid this in the future and to reduce the risk.”
Leendertz said viruses jump from animals to humans around the world every year.
“It was just unlucky that this was such a bad virus,” said the German.
“We are starting in Wuhan because the best initial data are available here,” said Leendertz. “From there we follow the tracks wherever they lead us.”
While acknowledging that “the fresher the tracks are, the better,” the trained veterinarian Leendertz said that even a year later, “it is still possible to narrow down the scenario”.
He added that all avenues remained open in terms of scientific analysis.
A WHO epidemiologist and animal health specialist traveled to China in July to lay the groundwork for the wider international investigation.
Since the end of October, the 10 experts have held regular virtual meetings with Chinese scientists who work on the same principle.
Leendertz warned that “we shouldn’t expect the team to come back with conclusive results after that first visit to China sometime in January”.
However, he hopes the team will return from China with a “concrete plan” for the second phase of the investigation, which will examine what will be needed to determine the transmission event that saw the virus leap from animal to human .
Leendertz said that “most” of the work, especially the “practical” basics, is done by Chinese experts.
The international mission is “there to support them” and also “to give transparency to the rest of the world”.
While scientists generally believe that bats were the virus’ original host species, the intermediate animal between bats and humans is not yet known.
Leendertz said the team will “go back in time” by examining various human swabs and serum collections from blood donors kept by Chinese authorities to see if people were exposed to the virus before the first cluster was recorded in December 2019.
Another approach will be to determine the role of the Wuhan wet market, where live exotic animals were bought and sold.
The expert in the epidemiology of highly pathogenic microorganisms said he was “fairly certain that somehow we will find out what happened”.
But he said a response “might take some time” with no timeframe for investigation.
In the meantime, he hoped that politics would stay “as far as possible” from the mission.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump accused China of covering up the first outbreak and branded WHO as a puppet of Beijing.