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Inside The World Health Organization's Investigation Into How Pandemic Began

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A team of scientists sent by the World Health Organization is in Wuhan, China, this week. That is the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Now, this is the second time a WHO team has visited, trying to find clues that could explain how and why the virus infected so many people so quickly starting in December 2019. NPR's Emily Feng has just been reporting from Wuhan herself. She's visited many of the same places that the WHO team is trying to get to. She's now back in Beijing, tracking the team's visit from there.

Hey, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So do we know where this team has been able to go, what they have been given access to?

FENG: We don't (inaudible) the entirety of their itinerary because the WHO and China have been strangely tight-lipped about the entire trip. We don't know how this team was chosen. We don't know who chose the itinerary. But they're here. They've been here for six days. We know they visited a Wuhan animal disease center and two hospitals. And they're going to try to understand the sequence and timing of certain events in talking to people who are at the nexus of the epidemic in Wuhan. It's not clear whether they'll get any more information than they did the first time around. They didn't get many answers then.

KELLY: All right. So collecting firsthand accounts - I wonder about another place, whether this is on the itinerary - the Wuhan Virology Institute. People may recall the Trump administration pointed at that institute as the place where they say the virus first emerged. Do we know if the WHO team will get access?

FENG: They did. And they actually went today. This is the lab, as you mentioned, that is the site of many an American conspiracy theory because it is famous for studying coronaviruses from bat samples, though there is no evidence whatsoever that the pandemic started from that lab. And scientists have told NPR repeatedly that it's virtually impossible for the pandemic to have originated there.

One of the WHO team members, an American scientist named Peter Daszak, visited that lab today with the team. And he met with the institute's top scientists. He tweeted, frank, open discussion - key questions asked and answered.

KELLY: And what about the wet markets, Emily, that have gotten so much attention? I saw that the team was able to see those. I know you've been reporting for us from those. What might they be able to find after all this time there?

FENG: Right. They went over the weekend. And I'm afraid that they were not able to see that much because those markets have been thoroughly disinfected, and any possible evidence has either been incinerated or washed away. For example, I went to Baishazhou, which is one of these wet markets the WHO went to. And it is a sprawling, changing mess. I mean, most workers there are seasonal, so they wouldn't have been there during the pandemic. And if you talk to the vendors themselves, here's what they tell you about the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking non-English Language).

FENG: He's saying, "There are too many coincidences. The virus in Wuhan began after these Military World Games. I think the virus came from abroad. And Wuhan is a scapegoat." There's no evidence for this theory, by the way, but it's spread like wildfire. He's talking about these international military games that the U.S. military attended in October 2019. And that's complicated - this politics of blame between the U.S. and China about who started the virus.

KELLY: It sounds like, with this visit, there's obviously science at stake but also the politics.

FENG: Yes. I mean, there's, first of all, the reputation of the WHO at stake. They've been criticized for not being hard enough on China, not making it be transparent. And now they're under pressure to conduct a thorough investigation. And second, this investigation has bearing on U.S.-China relations. This question of where the virus began is incredibly political, particularly under the Trump administration. And it looks like this point of contention will continue under the Biden administration. Secretary of State Blinken said yesterday China was not being transparent with the WHO investigation. China fired back and said maybe we should have a WHO investigation in the U.S.

KELLY: That is NPR's Emily Feng reporting today from Beijing.

Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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