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Monday, January 25, 2021

Qatar health expert joins WHO team in Wuhan to investigate COVID-19 origins

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Health experts from Qatar are among a World Health Organisation team of 13 specialists sent to conduct joint research with Chinese scientists.

A Qatari expert is among a team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts that headed to the central China city of Wuhan in a scientific field mission to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

According to state news agency Xinhua, the health team arrived on Thursday and will conduct joint research with Chinese scientists into the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The WHO team consists of 13 specialists in different fields: epidemiologists, virologists, clinicians and veterinary surgeons.

Qatar-based Acting Head of Communicable Diseases Control Programs, Dr. Elmoubasher Farag, has been selected to join the international health experts, South China Morning Post reported in November.

“The mission could set a standard for international collaboration in a politicised public health crisis, they say, but will depend on that data access, transparency and the ability to follow any clues,” according to media reports.

The ongoing mission is important on a global level as it gives experts among the team an opportunity to learn about unshared discoveries by their Chinese counterparts. 

“This is important not just for Covid-19 but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier this week.

The team sent to Wuhan by WHO was finally approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic debate.

Until now, theories on the origin of the virus that was first detected in China continue to circulate but nothing has yet been confirmed.

Some scientists suspect the virus was transmitted from bats or other creatures to humans in China’s southwest region. This then spread across the country before seeping out into the rest of the world, leading to a global pandemic.

Meanwhile, the ruling Communist Party said the disease came from abroad, possibly via imported seafood, a claim that has been denied by international scientists.

One of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth Alliance, has another theory.

The American health expert pointed to the possibility that a wildlife poacher may have passed the virus on to traders who carried it to Wuhan, according to an AP report in November.

Despite the floating theories, a conclusive reason has yet to be finalised, and more work and research is required to determine the origin.

“The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said on Wednesday.

The WHO team initially consisted of 15 experts, however two tested positive for coronavirus before leaving Singapore and are currently in isolation, WHO stated on Twitter.

The other 13 members will undergo all necessary precautionary procedures from two-week quarantine to a PCR test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV.

Read also: Qatar’s ‘Young Scientists’ join global inventors group

During the first two-week quarantine, the international team will be working with the Chinese scientists via video meetings.

The team includes experts in different scientific fields from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.

According to media reports, the first week will focus on brainstorming. 

“The government should be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.

The trip to China was planned a while ago but was postponed due to obstacles and restrictions imposed by Beijing on the WHO team in the past weeks.

Last week, Beijing turned back a team of specialists on their way to China claiming that they hadn’t received valid visas.

‘Not the time to blame’

That may have been a ‘technical issue,’ but it “raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.

At the beginning of the outbreak, politicians such as current US president Donald Trump falsely claimed China intentionally released the virus for political reasons.

However, according to WHO’s published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab.

A “scientific audit” of institute records and safety measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. 

He said that will depend on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.

“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.

Meanwhile, an investigation under an international media company revealed how the Chinese government imposed restrictions on studies and research into the virus while also preventing scientists from contacting the media.

Covid’s origin may never be determined because viruses change rapidly, Woolhouse said in a statement.

“We locals care about this very much. We are curious where the pandemic came from and what the situation was. We live here so we are keen to know,” said Qin Qiong, owner of a chain of restaurants serving hot and sour noodles.

She said she trusts in science to find the answer. 

Scientists should focus instead on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.

“Now is not the time to blame anyone,” Shih said. 


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