- A week behind schedule, WHO investigators are due to arrive in Wuhan, China on Thursday.
- They must try to determine how the coronavirus may have passed from animals to humans, in order to avoid a similar pandemic.
- “It’s like police investigative work. We will see how things are done, we ask different people questions to crosscheck. Interviewing human beings is very important, ”explains virologist Jean-Claude Manuguerra.
On January 11, 2020, a 61-year-old resident of Wuhan, China, died of the coronavirus, the first victim of a pandemic that was to become global. A year later, scientists selected by the World Health Organization (WHO) are due to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday to investigate the origin of the virus.
While their arrival was postponed for a week because of a visa problem, the scientists will have to wait a few more days before starting their investigation, the time to respect a mandatory quarantine on Chinese soil. But more than a year after the start of the pandemic, in a country which denies being the source of it, how will these ten scientists conduct their investigation?
A police investigation
They come from Japan, Denmark, Vietnam or Germany, and are specialized in epidemiology, zoology, public health or virology. On the spot, these scientists will have to trace the thread of the epidemic. “It’s like police investigative work. We have to go into the field, ”explains virologist Jean-Claude Manuguerra, head of the Institut Pasteur’s biological emergency response unit, himself sent in the past to the Middle East to investigate the Mers coronavirus. .
“On this kind of investigation, we will see how things are done, we ask different people questions to crosscheck, we learn about the first cases of atypical pneumonia in the region. It’s not just raw data, interviewing human beings is also very important. “
An automatic process in the event of an epidemic in order to “eliminate the contexts of emergence”. “We do not want to have another virus that follows the same path”, sums up the scientist, who recognizes however that a year later, research will be “very complicated. But even if we do not find the origin of the virus, we can accumulate data that will be used for other studies. “
A virus from outside
“We assume that this virus comes from an animal. We have to find out how the transition to humans was made, ”also recalls Jean-Claude Manuguerra. While it is clear that the epidemic first manifested itself at the end of 2019 in the vast Huanan market in Wuhan, where live wild animals were sold, the origin of the new coronavirus does not necessarily lie there. .
“Initially, he necessarily came from outside Wuhan. He entered the city on animals, or humans who worked outside. It is not known if the virus exists as is in animals, or if it was formed during a co-infection of two viruses in a subject. We will try to get as close as possible to one of the two hypotheses. “
The visit of these ten WHO experts is highly sensitive for Beijing, anxious to avoid any responsibility for the epidemic. The central power even believes that the virus may have been transmitted elsewhere in the world before it struck Wuhan. Anxious to keep good relations with Beijing, the WHO is committed not to designate a target. “These are answers that we seek, not the culprits or the accused,” recalled Monday the director of health emergency issues at the WHO, Michael Ryan.
Reconfinement for millions of Chinese
Marion Koopmans, one of the participants in the WHO mission, told Chinese television CGTN that the team would be “open to all hypotheses.” “WHO warns of the risk of emerging diseases, and I think no country is immune from it. This is not to blame but to understand and learn for the future. I don’t think we have to blame any particular country, but it’s important to start in Wuhan, where a big epidemic has occurred. “
The experts, it has been said, were due to arrive last week, but a last-minute problem concerning the authorizations to enter Chinese territory delayed their arrival. “This delay at the beginning of January is most certainly due to the resumption of the epidemic in China, where we feel a concern, a feverishness”, estimates Valérie Niquet, of the Foundation for Strategic Research and specialist in China. “The country was waiting to present a perfect copy to WHO investigators. They weighed the pros and cons of the mission and waited until they had “triumphed” over the virus, as President Xi Jinping said. But the resumption of the epidemic in the country is more important than anything that we have seen so far. “
On site, several sources of contamination have appeared in recent days, prompting a firm response from the authorities with strict travel restrictions for tens of millions of people. This is particularly the case in the province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia, as well as in Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, where 76 million inhabitants have been prohibited from leaving the province. Nationally, the daily report on Wednesday reported 115 new contaminations, the highest figure since July. Proof of Chinese nervousness on the subject, a “citizen journalist”, who had covered the quarantine in Wuhan, was sentenced two weeks ago to four years in prison.