Independent scientists told CNN that the recommended rudimentary investigative work should have been done several months earlier by Chinese scientists examining the origin of the virus. They said they found it “surprising” and “implausible” that Chinese scientists had not already done this work.
The panel’s recommendations will, among other things, pursue two main lines of inquiry, investigators familiar with the draft report told CNN.
First, they will request additional work on the patient’s contact history from December 8, 2019 in Wuhan, the first case confirmed by Chinese scientists and the WHO panel as having Covid-19. The patient has not been publicly identified but is, according to WHO investigators, an office worker in his 40s with no history of travel or exotic contact, who lived with his wife and child.
Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO 17-person team and chairman of the EcoHealth Alliance, which tracks viruses in animals, said the investigation established that the parents of the first known patient likely visited a market selling wild animals in Wuhan.
The patient met with the WHO team, Daszak said, and at the end of the meeting added that his parents had visited “a local community wet market in Wuhan,” which was not the market in Huanan seafood.
Daszak said the WHO panel was not made aware of market details during its visit and that it was possible he was selling animals or products that may have been infected with the novel coronavirus.
“Then he said at the end of the interview – and everything was being translated and the translator specifically said -” My parents visited a local community wet market, “” Daszak said of the meeting. .
“Now, to use the term ‘wet market’, especially under this political constraint that we were in, something very significant to me means: that other Wuhan markets – no [only] Huanan Market, other markets – sold wildlife products, ”Daszak said.
Daszak said Chinese scientists, reviewing the case as part of the government’s response, assured the WHO team that the patient’s parents had tested negative for the disease, but the Chinese did not appear have traced the contacts of parents on this market.
“If you find out that the patients are negative it is not easy to contact-trace them. But it is worth doing it now because we understand something about the spread of Covid around Wuhan,” Daszak said .
This patient had no known connection to the Huanan seafood market, the wet market believed to be linked to the early spread of the virus, according to Daszak, and “lived a typical city life. He did not participate in crowded sports activities. His main hobby was surfing the Internet. “
WHO chief of mission Peter Ben Embarek declined to comment on details of any further screening or contact testing needed. He told CNN: “More studies are needed.”
Other scientists have expressed surprise and even disbelief that subsequent investigations, both into the contact history of the first patient and into the Huanan market supply chain sought by the WHO, apparently failed. not already been done by China.
Professor Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, said: “It is implausible that this research has not been done. It is not realistic, given that there are scientists world class over there and that technology has invested in over the last 20 years. They are sophisticated, they understand the transmission routes and have been working on them for years. “
Miller said the patient’s infection on December 8 – without direct contact with wet markets or exotic travel – showed there was already community transmission of the virus in December. “In the short and long term, it is detrimental to China to try to hide the fact that this virus started in China and has been exported around the world,” she said.
“They have top-notch scientists, who are much more skilled than most at recognizing the importance of this information,” he said. Huang said the WHO recommendations showed that they “uncover interesting information about the origins of the virus.”
CNN explained the group’s recommendations to Miller and Huang as part of researching their reaction.
China’s Foreign Ministry (MOFA) and the National Health Commission did not respond to a request for comment. MOFA spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters on Feb. 18 that an independent report on the origins of the coronavirus “does not mean bowing to the Western approach to China based on the presumption of guilt.”
The second recommendation
In their preliminary report due next week, the WHO panel will also recommend an immediate investigation into the Huanan seafood market supply chain, according to investigators familiar with the draft report.
Daszak said Chinese scientists gave the WHO team a list of farms in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong that supply the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan with wildlife.
“There will be recommendations that will include going to those farms, testing farmers, interviewing and testing relatives, and finding out if there is any evidence that there have been epidemics there. before Wuhan, ”Daszak told CNN.
Daszak described the recommendation as a “priority” on which there was consensus between the WHO mission and Chinese scientists working with them. Daszak said Chinese scientists had visited wildlife farms in and around central Hubei province, and some “upstream suppliers,” but not the southern farms he and the WHO team were “the most interested “.
Testing the supply chain would allow scientists to see which animals – or humans – might have transmitted the virus to each other, before it infects humans in Wuhan. “A contagion event probably happened, a little earlier, in November, or maybe even in October,” Daszak said, referring to when the virus moves from one species to another.
“No one came to test the animals,” Daszak said. “The farms are now closed.”
Daszak added that the Chinese tracing team investigating the origin of the outbreak could have been hampered in this work by the lockdown that hit China in early 2020.
Farms are probably “a clear path to this virus,” Daszak said. “We now know that there were reserves of wild animals raised on farms in Yunnan Province, Guangxi and Guangdong for the Huanan market. We have the evidence and we have the data.”
“We have to find out what other products were selling these farms,” he added. “Were they selling animals that might be infected with the SARS coronavirus – including SARS-CoV-2? Animals, including rabbits, badgers, ferrets, civets?”
SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes Covid-19.
“You can do this by interviewing the farmers. They have nothing to lose. They will have closed their business and moved in their lives, and there was nothing illegal about what they were doing,” Daszak said. .
Daszak said southern Yunnan province was of particular interest, as this is where one of the closest genetic relatives of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – known as RaTG13 – was found in bald people. -mouse.
The urgent research among zoologists is to determine if – or how – the RaTG13 virus may have mutated over time to become SARS-CoV-2. The southern provinces of China are home to many species that are also susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
These southern farm animals could have possibly made it to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, Daszak said. Chinese scientists had taken samples at the Huanan Wet Market during January 2020 from carcasses of dead fish and other aquatic animals, but not from live species, he said. Some of the animals in the market were dead and frozen, he said.
“In that bundle of freezer stuff, there were rabbits,” Daszak said, and ferret badgers. “They were negative,” he said, but added that only a few had been tested. “We don’t know what else was going on in this market.”
Daszak said the results of this study were not published by Chinese scientists and were only shown to the WHO expert team.
He said the virus’s path to market from southern farms was a plausible theory for its origin.
“We don’t have clear definitive evidence, but it’s much more likely than any other route we’ve looked at,” he said.