The World Health Organization (WHO) team of investigators recently returned from the COVID-19 epicentre, Wuhan.
Initial findings by WHO investigators
From their initial investigations, there are signs the December 2019 outbreak did cover a much larger place than Wuhan. The investigating team is currently seeking access to blood samples of hundreds of thousands of people in Wuhan. However, no green light to do so has been given by Chinese officials.
Dr Peter B Embarek is the WHO team’s lead investigator. In an interview with CNN, Embarek said the mission established the presence of over a dozen COVID-19 strains in Wuhan in December.
Interview with the first infected person
The WHO team managed to speak to the first patient infected by the virus. On Dec 8th, officials reported the person was infected with COVID-19. The person is an office worker aged around 40 and does not have any notable travel history.
Dr Embarek told CNN, “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding”.
Chinese scientists provided data from 174 COVID-19 cases to the WHO team. These infections were all from the surrounding Wuhan area in December 2019. Laboratory tests confirmed 100 people having COVID-19. The remaining 74 were clinically diagnosed.
Dr Embarek spoke of the possibility that the Chinese doctors could have noticed the severe cases earlier on. He said, “In big ballpark figures, out of the infected population, about 15% end up severe cases. The vast majority are mild cases.”
Team detects 13 different strains
The WHO team expanded the scope of virus genetic material examined in December 2019. This allowed them to go into further detail and look into partial genetic samples. Their findings allowed them to gather 13 different varieties of the SARS-COV-2 virus from that period.
Cross referencing the data with a wider Chinese patient base across 2019 could lead to clues as to the timing and geographical layout of the outbreak before Dec 2019.
The team concludes that some outbreaks are from the markets. However, some outbreaks like the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, are not linked.
It is common for viruses to mutate as it reproduces and moves between animals or people. The WHO team leader did not conclude how the 13 strains could have impacted the spread of the disease prior to Dec 2019.
Was the virus circulating before Dec 2019?
However, the discovery of the 13 strains suggest the COVID-19 virus could have been circulating before Dec 2019.
A virologist at Sydney University, Prof. Edward Holmes, shares a similar opinion. Scientists already discovered genetic diversity in SARS-COV-2 sequences sampled from Wuhan in Dec 2019. “It is likely that the virus was circulating for a while longer than that month alone,” said Prof. Holmes.
Prof. Holmes also thinks the new data concurs with other analysed data that the virus was already active before the Wuhan outbreak in Dec 19.
WHO team press conference
The WHO team together with their Chinese counterparts released their findings in a recent press conference in Wuhan. Following the press conference, more information is emerging as to the data they could and could not access.
Testing of recovered COVID-19 patients a year on
Chinese scientists provided data of 92 suspected COVID-19 people during the period October to November 2019. These people were severe cases who displayed COVID symptoms. The WHO team requested for the 92 individuals to be tested for antibodies a year on. Results from 67 people who agreed to be tested were negative. Dr Embarek feels further tests are needed, as the results are unclear if the 67 people still had antibodies one year on.
The WHO team also noticed the 67 people did not come from any specific clusters in Wuhan. Dr Embarek said it is still unclear if these 92 individuals were actually linked to the coronavirus. Apart from that, it is also unclear why the selection of individuals did not include those who come from clusters.
Full cooperation from China for further investigation
China has promised to fully cooperate with the WHO investigators to carry out further investigations, and will be transparent in providing more data. Dr Embarek said the team plans to visit Wuhan again in a few months’ time to continue investigations. No definite dates have been scheduled yet.
15th February 2021 23:00
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