International probe into disease outbreaks ought to be routine, says WHO team that went to Wuhan

Members of the World Health Organisation team arrive at the Hubei Animal Epidemic Disease Prevention and Control Centre in Wuhan on Feb 2, 2021.
Members of the World Health Organisation team arrive at the Hubei Animal Epidemic Disease Prevention and Control Centre in Wuhan on Feb 2, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (AFP) - Experts who travelled to China to probe the Covid-19 pandemic's origins have called for such international investigations to become standard practice following an outbreak to lessen the stigma.

"Why don't we do this with every outbreak, as a routine?" asked Dr Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who was a member of the World Health Organisation mission to Wuhan earlier this year.

The United Nations health agency worked for months to send an international team to Wuhan to help determine how the novel coronavirus first jumped from animals to humans.

But in a tense geopolitical climate, the highly sensitive mission only landed on the ground in January this year - more than a year after the first cases were detected in the Chinese city in late 2019.

The independent experts, who spent four weeks in Wuhan visiting sites linked to early cases, wrapped up their mission last month without conclusive findings.

The team, which has stressed that this was just a first stage in the process, is expected to publish a report with their full findings next week.

Speaking at a virtual event on Wednesday (March 10) hosted by the Chatham House think-tank, several experts suggested that China's reluctance to admit an international team was understandable given the broad misconception that they were going in to second-guess Beijing's own probe.

They stressed that their true mission had been to cooperate with Chinese counterparts and build on their findings.

Dr Koopmans said few countries would welcome international experts in such circumstances, "because it feels like people coming in and telling you you are not doing a good job".

But if international investigations of disease outbreaks were automatic, it would help remove the notion that they are a "punishment", she said. "If we want to move beyond this sensitivity, let's just make it routine, standard."

Shift in thinking

British zoologist Peter Daszak, another team member, agreed that a more routine approach to addressing and preventing outbreaks and pandemics was needed.

He called for a dramatic re-think of pandemic prevention similar to the shift in terrorism monitoring following the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Dr Daszak lamented that far less is done to forecast disease outbreaks than other existential threats facing populations, such as terrorism, or hurricanes.

He insisted that the world needs to put far more "energy into forecasting pandemics and working out where the next one is going to come from".

While voicing confidence on Wednesday that the origin probe would eventually show significant results, Dr Daszak said he hoped the current crisis would spark a wider rethink.

He pointed to the shift in how the US now approaches terrorism prevention.

The country, he said, had moved from having a vague idea of where al-Qaeda attacks might occur, to putting in place a system for monitoring every phone call and other communication into the US for rumours of planned attacks.

"That is the sort of change and shift in thinking we need for pandemics," he said, calling for systematic monitoring of places where wildlife interact with livestock and humans.

The world should be working to "find out what threats are out there in wildlife that could emerge in the future, work out where they are...and disrupt that interface", he said.