It is the great riddle of our time: how, when and where did the coronavirus emerge? Even insiders at the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is tasked with finding the answers, are alarmed to discover that China will “call the shots” in providing them.
Eleven months after the first cases of a mystery disease were linked to a Chinese wildlife market, an investigation is finally, if tentatively, under way. But critics have said that the effort, led by the WHO, is too little, too late, and that concessions to Beijing are undermining it.
The investigation is a collaboration between a WHO team of foreign experts - approved by Beijing from a list submitted by UN member states - and Chinese scientists.
However, there is still no timeline for the international team to enter China and no guarantee whom they may interview, what records they will be able to see and whether they will be allowed to visit Wuhan, the city in central China that was ground zero to the epidemic. Instead, the WHO and Beijing have agreed that Chinese researchers will conduct the early stages of the investigation.
It will be left to them to interview patients, frontline doctors and scientists, review hospital records and medical samples, investigate what animals were sold at the Huanan market and try to establish supply chains, according to the WHO’s own mission statement.
The foreign experts will initially review and discuss the findings of the Chinese researchers from afar, conferring by video link and email.
Terms of reference negotiated between the WHO and Beijing have just been released - slipped out without notice while the world’s attention was diverted by the American presidential election. These state that the focus of the international scientists will be to “build on” and “augment” the “existing information” supplied by the Chinese side.
“China gets to call the shots,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University in Washington, whose department provides the WHO with technical assistance. “That’s how the Chinese operate.”
This process was “shrouded in secrecy”, he added, and the chances of the international team getting any useful information was slim. “That’s very frustrating and extremely dangerous. We need to know the origins as there will be future coronaviruses. You can be very good disease detectives, but you’d have to be wizards to go back nearly a year to assess how it jumped from animal to another animal to human.”
The quality and integrity of the individual scientists were not in dispute, said Yanzhong Huang, a Chinese public health expert at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. Interference by Beijing was what was causing concern, he added.
Chinese scientists then released the genetic sequencing of the virus, only for Beijing to claim credit and be praised by the WHO. So it is hardly surprising that questions have been raised about the investigation.
“There is nothing wrong with building on the work of Chinese scientists,” said Huang. “But will the scientists or the officials be in the driving seat? And to what extent will the government be co-operative and accommodating?”
Gostin echoed his concerns. “China’s scientific establishment has become one of the world’s best in a short period of time. They are strong and serious interlocutors for the WHO.
“But in December and January the Chinese government muzzled its scientists. They may be on a longer lead now, but they are still on a lead. And if they stray too far, the authorities will yank them back. China will give them independence only to the point where its reputation is at risk.
“Beijing doesn’t want to lose face in the global battle for pride and prowess over how the pandemic has been handled. Their narrative is that they have done better than liberal democracies. They don’t want that tarnished by any investigations.”
Huang also saw the heavy hand of Beijing in the several mentions in the terms of reference to investigating the “global origins” of the pandemic.
After identifying the market as the source of the outbreak, Beijing repeatedly insisted that there was no proof that the virus originated in China.
Officials have cited reports of infected sewage samples in Europe and called for investigations there and even promoted unfounded claims that US soldiers competing in a sports championship brought the virus to Wuhan.
“As the terms were negotiated between WHO and Beijing, it is no surprise that they incorporate the Chinese narrative about the outbreak,” said Huang. “It is Chinese policy to say, ‘Just because we experienced the first outbreak, that doesn’t mean we were the origin.’
“This global stuff is all speculative, but it gets strong focus in this document. These terms of reference don’t give me great optimism for the prospects for the investigation.”
According to some observers, Beijing could delay or stall the inquiries in China if it deems that the hunt for a source is not global.