A team of World Health Organization investigators in China researching the origins of the coronavirus tell CNN they now have months of Chinese influenza data which might contain vital clues as to the early spread of the virus.
On Sunday, the team visited the wet market thought to be central to the disease’s spread: The now disinfected and shuttered Huanan seafood market in the city of Wuhan, where an initial cluster of pneumonia-like illnesses were noticed by doctors in mid-December 2019. The market has become the anecdotal ‘ground-zero’ for COVID-19, even though later studies have suggested it may have begun elsewhere.
Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO team and a food safety specialist, told CNN that “even if the place had been to some extent disinfected, all the shops are there – and the equipment is there. It gives you a good idea of the state of the market in terms of maintenance, infrastructure, hygiene and flow of goods and people.” The team was able to talk to locals and workers, said Ben Embarek. He cautioned it was too early in their investigations to draw conclusions.
“It’s clear that something happened in that market,” Ben Embarek said. “But it could also be that other places had the same role, and that one was just picked because some doctors were clever enough to link a few sporadic cases together.”
Another WHO team member, Professor Thea Fisher, told CNN she’d been surprised by the “usefulness” of seeing a market that had been deserted for the past year. “We had some very good public health people with us who had actually been undertaking some of the environmental sampling at the market. …explaining to us exactly where did they take the samples from the ventilation system.”
“It’s quite a shock to see place,” said another team member, ecologist and zoologist Peter Daszak. “All the stores are empty, the equipment’s still there. It’s a little bit eerie.”
According to Ben Embarek, the team is scheduled to next visit the Centers for Disease Control in Hubei and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they expected to meet She Zhengli, the virologist known as “Bat Lady” for her lengthy investigation of the bat coronaviruses, which scientists say are a close cousin to SARS-COV-2. The Wuhan Institute has gained notoriety after a series of unsubstantiated, evidence-free claims by senior Trump officials that the laboratory was the source of the virus that has infected over 100m worldwide.
Ben Embarek also revealed that Chinese officials gave the WHO team important data about influenza, or flu-like diseases, spotted by China’s sophisticated disease surveillance systems in and around the region of Hubei in the months preceding the December 2019 outbreak.
“We have data for the whole province and also beyond – looking at data from other neighboring provinces and going back several months…There is a lot of stuff to look at. It’s important to be able in the months before [the outbreak] to go down to a much lower level, and try to pick up signals, and see was there anything there that we can we could link,” he said.
A CNN investigation revealed last year that a huge spike in influenza cases occurred in two cities close to Wuhan – Yuanan and Xianning – in the first week of December 2019. The previously unreported influenza spike was disclosed by leaked Chinese government documents obtained by CNN. It remains unclear what impact or connection that outbreak may have had on the Covid-19 outbreak.
Ben Embarek described the approach of Chinese authorities, who have been earlier criticized for the slow admission of the WHO team, as “transparent.”
“We see what we ask to see,” he said, adding the Chinese authorities had been flexible and that he hoped for future trips after this first 14 day mission.
But Fisher said work was sometimes complicated by the sheer size of the group that undertakes some visits in China. “It’s my hope with some of the visits in the coming days that we can go in smaller groups. It is harder to build up a relationship [with an interviewee] in a very short amount of time …if you are 50 people sitting around listening.”
Nick Paton Walsh reported from London and Sandi Sidhu from Hong Kong.