Coronavirus: WHO team lays groundwork in China for investigation into animal source

Linda Lew
·4 min read

A team from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has completed the groundwork for an investigation into the animal source and reservoirs of the novel coronavirus, the UN agency said on Sunday.

“A two-person WHO advance team has concluded its three-week assignment in China to lay the groundwork for further joint efforts to identify the virus’ origins,” it said in a statement.

The team had “extensive discussions with Chinese counterparts and received updates on epidemiological studies, biologic and genetic analyses, and animal health research”, it said.

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They also “carried out video discussions with virologists/scientists in Wuhan, China and as well as local health authorities in Beijing”.

The statement came after a panel of experts urged the WHO to fast track its investigation, which has been in the pipeline since the end of June.

The call was made at the fourth meeting of the emergency committee for Covid-19, convened by the WHO on Friday. Held every three months, the meeting evaluates whether the outbreak continues to qualify as a public health emergency of international concern, and provides advice to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The meeting called for the “research into remaining SARS-CoV-2 critical unknowns, such as the animal source and potential animal reservoirs” to be accelerated”.

Tedros said after the meeting that Covid-19 still merited the highest alert level and warned the impact of the pandemic would continue to be felt for a long time.

“The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come,” he said in a press release.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the Covid-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-century health crisis. Photo: AFP
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the Covid-19 pandemic as a once-in-a-century health crisis. Photo: AFP

The emergency committee is made up of health experts from more than 20 countries, including China, the United States, France and South Korea.

Finding the animal source of the coronavirus is now a priority as scientists around the world continue to study and try to understand the pathogen.

“We can fight the virus better when we know everything about the virus, including how it started,” Tedros said at the end of June, when the investigation was announced.

On July 7, the two-person team – neither of whom were named – travelled to China to lay the groundwork for the investigation.

But Mike Ryan, director of the WHO health emergencies programme, said it could still be weeks before a full team is able to visit China.

The forerunners had to comply with China’s rules on quarantine before they were allowed to start work, he said at a briefing on July 21.

The WHO was still contacting experts from around the world to take part in the mission, he said.

WHO still dogged by critics, six months after declaring coronavirus emergency

Despite maintaining its highest alert level for Covid-19, the WHO said it recognised international air travel had resumed in some places, and on Thursday issued a guide on travel practices for governments and health authorities.

The update to its travel advice was the first since March.

The guide recommends screening passengers at departure and on arrival, which can include a polymerase chain reaction test, the most common method to test for the coronavirus. It also says countries should increase their capacity for isolating people and contract tracing measures should be strengthened.

The guide dismissed the use of so-called immunity certificates for international travel, saying there was no scientific evidence to support them.

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