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What Lies Ahead for WHO Team Investigating COVID Origins?


A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
What Lies Ahead for WHO Team Investigating COVID Origins?
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A team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) has finally begun a research trip to China aimed at discovering the origins of the new coronavirus.

What lies ahead for the experts and what can the world expect to learn from their findings?

Why is the team in China?

The scientists are seeking information on the earliest known cases of the coronavirus, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan. They hope their investigation into the origins will help prevent similar pandemics in the future.

Researchers around the world want samples taken from Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, which had an early outbreak of the virus. They are also seeking to examine Wuhan hospital records.

Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), leaves his quarantine hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), leaves his quarantine hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The team could also go to the laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was built after the 2003 SARS outbreak. The institute keeps a large number of records on genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses.

Officials in the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump suggested -- without offering evidence -- that the virus could have escaped from the institute. Most experts say it is unlikely the new coronavirus came from the lab in Wuhan or was engineered by humans.

What do researchers hope to learn?

While Wuhan is where the first coronavirus cases appeared, experts say it is highly possible that the virus came to the city from somewhere else. The team will investigate this, as well.

This file photo shows a blocked entrance to Huanan seafood market, where the coronavirus that can cause COVID-19 is believed to have first surfaced, is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China March 30, 2020. Picture taken March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song
This file photo shows a blocked entrance to Huanan seafood market, where the coronavirus that can cause COVID-19 is believed to have first surfaced, is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China March 30, 2020. Picture taken March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Genetic sequencing shows that the coronavirus started in bats and likely jumped to another animal before infecting humans. A virus that is the closest known relative of the new coronavirus has been found in bats inside a mine about 1,600 kilometers southwest of Wuhan.

Many of the first coronavirus cases had links to the Huanan Seafood Market. At first, scientists suspected the virus came from wild animals sold at the market. This theory led China to limit the wildlife trade. But the discovery of earlier cases put that theory into question.

China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said samples taken from the market suggest it was likely a place where the virus spread -- but not where it started. The WHO team is expected to try to gain access to those samples.

Chinese officials depart following a meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic at the Hilton Wuhan Optics Valley Hotel in Wuhan, China’s central Hubei province on January 29, 2021. (AFP)
Chinese officials depart following a meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic at the Hilton Wuhan Optics Valley Hotel in Wuhan, China’s central Hubei province on January 29, 2021. (AFP)

What difficulties will the team face?

Health experts say the big question is what China will permit the researchers to see and do. The ruling Communist Party is concerned that the research could draw attention to how it dealt with the virus and possibly open it up to international criticism. It also fears that if the team finds that the government was negligent in dealing with the crisis, it would have to pay financial damages.

So far, China has blocked independent reports about the pandemic at home and published little information on its research into the origins of the virus. An investigation by The Associated Press found that the government has strongly controlled all COVID-19-related research and bans researchers from speaking to the media.

Workers wave to the team of experts from the World Health Organization who ended their quarantine and prepare to leave the quarantine hotel by bus in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Workers wave to the team of experts from the World Health Organization who ended their quarantine and prepare to leave the quarantine hotel by bus in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

China has suggested the virus could have originated in another country. A government spokesperson has said the search for the beginnings of the coronavirus will require work outside China’s borders. This includes bat habitats in Southeast Asian countries. An expert on the WHO team has suggested the same, so this is a possibility the researchers are likely to explore.

When can we expect answers?

The search for the origins of the new coronavirus is likely to take years. It took more than 10 years to find the origins of SARS. And scientists have still not identified the origins of Ebola, which first appeared in the 1970s.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press and Reuters reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the reports for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

origin n. the cause of something or where something begins or comes from

sample n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

genetic sequencen. the arrangement of nucleotides belonging to a particular gene

relativen. considered in relation to something else

accessn. the ability to use or take part in something

negligentadj. failing to take care of something or someone

habitatn. the natural environment of an animal or plant

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