WUHAN – A member of the World Health Organization expert team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan said the Chinese side granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested — a level of openness that even he hadn’t expected.
Peter Daszak told The Associated Press on Friday that team members had submitted a deeply considered list of places and people to include in their investigation and that no objections were raised.
“We were asked where we wanted to go. We gave our hosts a list ... and you can see from where we’ve been, we've been to all the key places," Daszak said.
“Every place we asked to see, everyone we wanted to meet. ... So really good," said the British-born zoologist, who is president of the NGO EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.
Daszak said the team has now concluded site visits and will spend the next few days trolling through data and consulting with Chinese experts before presenting a summary of their findings at a news briefing prior to their departure on Wednesday.
“I can’t really say too much about what we’ve found yet because we’re at that exact point in time where the teams are coming together looking at different pathways, different issues,” he said.
He said questions include what were the first cases, what was the link with animals and what, if any, was the role of the so-called “cold chain” — the possibility the virus was brought into China on packaging from imported frozen food, an unproven theory that China has long put forward.
“And of course, we’re looking at every hypotheses that’s been out there and seeing where the data take us and do they point to any particular one,” Daszak said.
Daszak had high praise for Chinese experts, who had been preparing for the visit for months, particularly deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, with whom he worked to track down the origins of sever acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.
Some, including people close to former President Donald Trump, had speculated the institute may have been the origin of the outbreak because of its large collection of bat virus specimens and that Chinese authorities were covering up the truth.
However, Daszak said they were met during their visit to the high-security institute with a level of openness even he hadn’t anticipated, and that suspicions surrounding it had been “politicized on a global scale.”
“The pressure for this institution I’m sure has been intense so it was really good to have, not just me, but this whole group of international experts be able to ask really insightful questions and also to have all the key people in the room when we did that,” Daszak said.
China has strongly denied the possibility of a leak from the lab and has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere before being brought to Wuhan, including possibly on imported frozen food packaging.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to deny calls for a strictly independent investigation. Authorities have kept a tight hold on information about the possible causes of the pandemic that has now sickened more than 105 million people and killed more than 2.2 million worldwide.
Daszak said the team was also given wide access when visiting hospitals that treated patients in the initial outbreak at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020.
“To meet the first clinicians who took in the first patients with COVID, that’s incredible ... that you can talk to that person who dealt with that first case and ask her what she saw and ask questions,” Daszak said.
The same level of access was given at the Huanan Seafood Market that was linked to early case clusters, he said. That included meeting with vendors and market managers and touring the market with those who did the original environmental swabbing that produced signs of the virus even after the market had been closed down.
“So this is an in-depth, deep understanding of the sites and the people who were involved,” Daszak said.
Daszak said the investigation by the team, composed of experts from 10 nations, was simply an initial step and that it would likely take years to confirm the origins of the virus. Exhaustive research is needed to pin down an outbreak’s animal reservoir, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
The virus is widely suspected to have originated in bats, which also produced the SARS virus, before being passed to humans through an intermediary species, possibly a wild animal such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, considered an exotic delicacy by some in China. One possible cause is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan but that has yet to be proven.
Among measures taken by China after the initial outbreak, Daszak had specific praise for the 76-day lockdown imposed on Wuhan, a city of 11 million, along with the almost total closure of wildlife markets and breeding farms nationwide.
China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths from COVID-19.
In recent months, China has largely eliminated cases of local transmission, with just six reported on Friday — five in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and one in the eastern financial hub of Shanghai.
Although some social distancing restrictions have been eased, strict testing, quarantines, electronic monitoring and community lockdowns remain in force, while mask-wearing in public is almost universal.
McNeil reported from Beijing.