“China is not going to want results that are right for its critics.” What is known of the WHO mission in Wuhan to investigate covid-19

A team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) has been in Wuhan, China for about three weeks to investigate the origin of the new virus pandemic. They arrived on the day January 14, after a first visit in February, with an itinerary that includes visits to research institutes, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology – where the high security laboratory that studies viruses such as the covid-19 works and which has been the subject of speculation thanks to statements by the former North President American, Donald Trump – hospitals and fish and seafood markets, like the one where the new virus was initially detected.

Are ten experts from different nationalities, including virologists, epidemiologists and public health specialists, but also biologists, zoologists, veterinarians and professionals linked to the agricultural and food sector, who are visiting the country. They come from countries such as the USA, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, Vietnam, Germany and Qatar and, although the criteria on the basis of which they were chosen to be part of the mission have not been made public, it is possible to pursue some clues.

To Expresso, Constantino Sakellarides, former Director-General of Health with experience at WHO (was Director of the European Region for the Organization’s Health Policies and Services), explains that Field missions like the one taking place in China include “WHO staff” (secretariat) and “guest scientists” by the international health organization, “based on their technical capacity and specific skills”.

When “sensitive issues” are at stake – and the pandemic and the detection, for the first time in China, of the virus that gave rise to it, are clear examples of this – “There is a technical component and another policy”. Whether in the choice of experts who are part of the mission, “whether they are suitable or defend other interests”, or in the “definition of objectives and calendars”, including the publication of the final report with the conclusions of the investigation, “usually reviewed by the countries involved before publication ”. “The agreement document will be very specific, although there are few details released to the public. Everything has to be negotiated beforehand, even so that there are no problems when it comes to disseminating the mission results. If there are rules previously defined and they are strictly adhered to, the probability of a Government being hostile towards the final conclusions is less. ” So, he says, is that it is a preparation process so “time consuming”.

Final report may be completed as early as May

Peter Daszak, a British zoologist and one of the members of the mission to China, drew attention to this a few weeks ago, saying that the investigation could take years. Constantino Sakellarides says the same: “There are several things that can affect a mission. And it may take years to reach conclusions. In this case, that context has even been created. It was made clear that this whole process should not be rushed, not to create uncontrollable pressures. No one can guarantee that the mission will be completed within a year. ” However, there is a great expectation around the publication, in May of this year, of the final report, or at least of an almost final version. THE The document will be prepared by an independent panel, chaired by Helen Clark (New Zealand) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), created for this purpose.

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Expectations aside, there are ways to understand, with practical examples, what a mission of this nature consists of. Constantino Sakellarides tells an example that he followed during his mandate at WHO: “There was a conflict between Bulgaria and Turkey. There were many Turks in Bulgaria and they complained of being mistreated in accessing healthcare. Turkey made a complaint to the WHO ”, he recalls.

“We therefore had two Member States confronting each other. The regional director for Europe managed to bring together the representations of the two countries, so that they could agree on the terms of the process to follow. ” “A technical commission was agreed, as well as the names that made it up”, and this technical commission “later visited both countries”. “The agreement that was reached was that the final report of the commission would be released by the press in Turkey and Bulgaria, and reported on television in both countries, on a specific day, at 8 pm.” It is an example, he concludes, of “a political agreement, in which the WHO served as mediator.”

Mission is “technical” but China “will not want results that prove its critics right”

As early as February of last year, about two months after the first case of covid-19 infection was diagnosed in Hubei province, Wuhan, a WHO team traveled to China. Experts from the international organization visited several places, including the market where the virus was first detected and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. At no time did they answer the journalists’ questions and there is little information about that first visit and even more details about what is going on at the moment. However, a report has already been published by the aforementioned independent panel in which it contextualizes and explains the appearance of the covid-19 virus, and the response to the pandemic by WHO and different countries, and the impact on health services, economy and communities. There is no turning around China: “In January [de 2020], China’s local and national health authorities should have more publicly implemented public health measures. ”

Constantino Sakellarides also talks about this. “The general impression is that China reported late on the start of a new epidemic. That was very conservative, even internally, to acknowledge that something new was happening. ” A posture that, in a pandemic situation, is the least advisable. “When we are facing a pandemic, the main objective is to get there as soon as possible, to act as quickly as possible, to prevent it from expanding further.”

China did not, and “the fact that there was this delay caused several European countries, as well as the USA, to express great displeasure in relation to the country’s behavior”. The political pressure that exists at the moment on China is “enormous” and the country “could not simply refuse to be investigated”, not least because “international cooperation is essential to fight a pandemic.” Which does not mean that, from now on, “There is no pressure due to the political nature of the results” of the mission, in this case exercised by the Government of Xi Jinping. “Despite being technical, the results will have a political interpretation. China will not want results that are right for its critics. ”


All possibilities are open, including that of the virus escaping the laboratory in Wuhan

Such a mission seeks to keep all data confidential from start to finish, but Peter Daszak, the British zoologist already mentioned, recently gave an interview to “Sky News” in which he said that all hypotheses are open, even the most speculative ones, like that of the virus escaping from that laboratory. On the same occasion, the expert also guaranteed that scientists are finding new data, “that no one had seen before”, and that they are close to “really getting somewhere”. “We are having new information and it is good, it is very valuable things that are starting to help us find the right path.”

His words echoed Donald Trump’s controversial accusations and statements, and therefore deserve context: “This was not official information, it does not correspond to the official position of WHO, which does not make formal statements about the results of an investigation before it is over,” says Constantino Sakellarides. “There are only peripheral noises about possible hypotheses”, considers the public health specialist, also drawing attention to the need to distinguish between occasional affirmations of frames WHO and, moreover, the multiple technicians invited to participate in the organization’s missions, and enter the formal conclusions of the work, validated by the mission as a whole”. “Often, the media do not, with the necessary precision, distinguish between what is the formal position of WHO and the individual points of view of one or another expert who has participated in the organization’s missions.

Hypotheses such as that of the virus escaping the laboratory “should only be interpreted as working hypotheses”, reinforces the expert. “A competent investigation always starts with the most plausible hypotheses. Now, all the pandemics studied so far have resulted from the fact that a microorganism has managed to overcome the barrier between species, from other animals to man, and has begun to transmit itself from person to person. ” In the past century, he continues, “we had three influenza pandemics and, this century, another influenza pandemic and several pandemic threats, such as SARS, in 2003.” “In none of these situations was the hypothesis plausibly posed that it resulted from a laboratory incident. They all had a natural origin ”says the public health expert, who goes even further: “In none of the pandemic threats that we have had in the last 20, 30 years was it reasonable to consider that the origin was not natural.”

As for the hypothesis that the virus left the laboratory, there is one thing you want to make clear: it doesn’t seem the most “plausible”. But that does not mean that it should not be investigated. “The improbable can happen. And, taking all this into account, it is easy to understand the delicacy of the situation. ” It is “natural”, he adds, “that a country feels uncomfortable with the fact that it can be attributed to a delay in the early detection and communication of the beginning of a pandemic”, but “the situation is much more serious when the hypothesis is raised of human error in triggering this process. ” “And even worse, when in the fertile world of conspiracy theories, deliberate action is spoken of.”

In these circumstances, we understand the “Government sensitivity about who says what”. “If a hypothesis, initially not very plausible, is raised by a WHO leader, the reaction is strong. If it is authored by someone who is on the ground but is, in a way, peripheral to the conclusions of the investigation, the reaction will be different. ” This is especially true for China, whose mission it is involved in has a “very strong political component” therefore, any WHO action that is politically reckless “will undermine the investigation and close the country’s doors.” “There is the technical part – and this mission is very technically sophisticated – and there are the conclusions and their political significance”, frieze Constantino Sakellarides.

But what if, in fact, there had been an accident? What are the consequences of this? It depends, says Constantino Sakellarides, exemplifying again: “There are incidents where there is really an obvious human error, but there are others where the incident can be associated with the small margin of uncertainty, the margin of error associated with any security protocol.” Thus, a “kind of typification, hierarchy” can be done: there are security flaws that “are within the margin of error of the protocols and risk situations provided for by these security protocols” and the flaws that “are outside that margin. “” Yes, it is already considered negligence, and there may be another type of liability. “

Source: Expresso by expresso.pt.

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