The WHO in China

The WHO arrive in China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic
18 January 2021

Interview with 

Maureen Miller, Columbia Public Heath


The logo of the World Health Organisation.


A team of World Health Organisation officials have this week arrived in Wuhan to begin their investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. More than a year after it was first reported, its source is still disputed; many accept that while Wuhan seemed to host the first major outbreak, it may not be the site where the virus first entered humans. China, having just reported its first COVID death in eight months, has suggested it may have originated outside the country; while others remain suspicious of China itself, especially after they appeared to be blocking or delaying the WHO entry into the country. But now they’re in, how will they approach this? Maureen Miller is an infectious disease epidemiologist who spoke with Chris Smith...

Maureen - Hi, thank you for having me. First of all, they arrived on Thursday and they're going to be in quarantine for two weeks. So during the time that they're in quarantine, the hope is that they will have the ability to communicate directly with the scientists who have done research because make no mistake, China has not been idle and the government has funded an incredible amount of research. The only thing that was shared from all of this research, however, was the genetic sequence of SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 and because of that, we have been able to develop a vaccine with record speed.

Chris - Well, yes, quite and many people argue that in fact, China must have known quite a lot about coronavirus and known it existed for quite some time to produce that genome code. Because they handed that to the world health organisation right at the beginning of January, but you know, I've worked on viruses like coronaviruses for a long time and I know that you don't just go from an outbreak to identifying the cause to having the genome of that virus in a matter of days or weeks, it takes a long time to pull all those strands together. So China maybe perhaps sat on this for longer than people realise.

Maureen - I think there are two issues. One is the spillover of the virus into a human population. When did that happen? I don't think China can be held responsible for that. It clearly happened in China. We don't know when, we don't know where - it's unlikely to have happened in Wuhan, because most scientists agree that it is a bat virus that then went through another animal and infected human beings.

Chris - So if you're saying that China did share the genome code, but they haven't been terribly helpful since in fact they have in fact delayed the arrival of the WHO into their country, what difference would it make having people on the ground in Wuhan now, compared to just asking the Chinese, can you share your learning so far with us?

Maureen - The team that is there of international scientists, most of them have previously worked with Chinese scientists. So they're well known, they have long standing relationships. The Chinese government has blocked Chinese scientists from communicating with the outside world. Once they're face-to-face even virtually through the internet while they’re there, when they have the ability to communicate that information gets shared. It's clearly monitored and China has a lot of explaining to do why they didn't allow this to happen earlier.

Chris - Yes, indeed but if you're concerned that people can't speak out from within China is that same fear not going to apply inside China? Because there will be, for want of a better phrase, heavies sitting in on these meetings, won’t there who are going to report straight back what's being said, who's saying it, and there will therefore be a fear among those scientists to perhaps not impart as much information as they could.

Maureen - Absolutely, that is a huge concern and I think this first visit is more political than scientific in terms of developing a collaboration. But China is suffering in public relations because of their inability and unwillingness to do this, there will be some information shared and some information is better than no information. But there are cracks. Professor Shi Zhengli, who is a director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has already broken ranks by speaking with the BBC about a month ago, saying she very much wanted the scientists to come to Wuhan and speak with her directly. And three or four weeks ago the Chinese government was not going to let a science team go to Wuhan, which is where the virus was discovered.


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