Security personnel stand guard as WHO investigators visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP

The small team of World Health Organization professionals who have been in Wuhan since January are unlikely to leave a big impression on the origin of Covid-19.

The experts are now wrapping up exchanges with their Chinese peers and their whistle-stop tours of markets, hospitals and labs in the mega central Chinese city where the virus first struck.   

However, there is said to be growing unhappiness among the Wuhan cadres and researchers sent by China’s National Health Commission (NHC) to accompany them on their site trips.

This is after members of the WHO panel teased the global media and academia last week that they had found “pivotal clues and evidence” in their brief inspection of a Wuhan seafood market where first cases propped up in December 2019, and that they would seek to make public their findings before leaving China on Wednesday. 

These Wuhan and NHC personnel are keen to find out if the WHO group’s discoveries and preliminary conclusions dovetail with Beijing’s narrative that the pathogen could have multiple sources and versions and that Wuhan may not be the original or only breeding ground. 

Beijing is reportedly annoyed by British zoologist Peter Daszak’s hints to reporters about sharing extra information about what he had found at the Huanan market, the initial outbreak hotspot, because the WHO team had agreed to stick to the Chatham House rule in all discussions with Chinese officials and scientists.

This meant they had to refrain from unilaterally announcing any major findings, a pledge that reputedly paved the way for Beijing’s U-turn to grant the WHO direct access to Wuhan. 

Still, the Chinese are also mindful not to leave the impression that they are surveilling the WHO team, as Beijing has promised carte blanche for their four-week stay in Wuhan to trace the virus to its possible sources. 

Previously, Wuhan’s government had managed to alter the itinerary to insert an hours-long visit to a feel-good exhibition about the city’s triumph over Covid-19, which gushed about how the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping had led the nation to vanquish the contagion in the city and elsewhere.

Also, right after emerging from their fortnight of quarantine, the vanload of WHO experts was said to be driven right away from their hotel to a government hall in a police convoy and met Wuhan’s party chief Wang Zhonglin, who urged them to “be fair” with their comments about the city, according to Wuhan papers. 

People visit an exhibition about China’’s fight against Covid-19 at a convention center that was previously a makeshift hospital in Wuhan on January 15, 2021. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris admitted in Geneva last month that the places and people to see in Wuhan had all been arranged by the Chinese authorities. The United Nations body has sought to manage expectations, revealing that its team had been limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts, without any contact with community members due to health restrictions.

Other than the Huanan market, the team had still been allowed to interview some patients and doctors pre-vetted by the Chinese authorities and to visit the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Wuhan Institute of Virology to talk to a team led by bat-borne disease specialist Shi Zhengli, as conspiracy theories about her lab unleashing the virus upon the world continued to swirl. 

Still, Beijing may certainly find the remarks from one member of the WHO mission, Vladimir Dedkov, deputy director of the St Petersburg Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Russia, fit well into its official account.

Dedkov said Shi’s P-4 lab, of the highest biosafety international standard, was well organized and perfectly equipped and it was hard for him to imagine that something could have leaked from there, adding that China’s greatest contribution to the global fight was to constantly keep the virus at bay in the world’s most populous nation. 

The Russian’s remarks may give more power to the state media’s publicity blitz to portray China as a victim and a conqueror of the pandemic.

But will more details about the clues found at the market help debunk more conspiracies or propagate new rumors?

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus flew into Beijing in February 2020 to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping after a mysterious pneumonia emerged in Wuhan. Photo: Xinhua

An infectious disease expert with the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that the WHO team would choose very carefully what to share with the public and try not to elicit any strong response from Beijing before they could leave Wuhan. 

He said on condition of anonymity that after the two weeks in quarantine, the WHO panel may have to hasten their collection of essential samples in the remainder of their stay in Wuhan and they would certainly think their time there could have been better spent than visiting an exhibition about how the city had conjured up victories over Covid. 

Dr Tao Lina, a former immunization planning advisor with Shanghai’s CDC, also noted on his blog that the WHO could be under pressure to find something “convincing and tangible” when the international community was suspicious about the scientific value of two short weeks of field work in Wuhan.

But Tao also said Beijing would be unlikely to sit by if the WHO panel dropped a bombshell that deviated from its official stance. 

“Don’t expect any earth-shattering discoveries from the WHO experts before they leave China,” Tao said.

“The clues, as I guess, may just be convincing traces of Covid throughout the Huanan market and possibly signs of how it may have jumped from animals once sold in the market to venders and buyers there.

“I’m curious about what they have found, as according to reports they only spent an hour scouting some parts of the sprawling market for clues. Beijing will ensure their remarks and findings won’t go against its insistence that China is not the origin or at least sole origin,” said Tao. 

Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said other countries should let the WHO conduct similar epidemiological probes after China took the lead to cooperate, since more signs had emerged suggesting multiple sources. 

Wang’s colleague Hua Chunying also reacted to renewed US accusations that a cover-up in Wuhan that resulted in Covid’s global spread. Hua proposed that the US open its Fort Detrick bio lab in Maryland for a WHO probe. 

Fort Detrick was the center of the US biological weapons program from 1943 to 1969. Since the discontinuation of that program, it has hosted most elements of the US biological defense program. Hua’s colleague Zhao Lijian said last year that the US military could have brought Covid to Wuhan when the city hosted the World Military Games in October 2019. 

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