• Sat. Dec 10th, 2022

An Australian scientist set to travel to China as part of a 10-member team of experts exploring the origin of the coronavirus says he won’t let politics get in the way of his investigation.

Dec 2, 2020

An Australian scientist tasked with answering one of the most politically sensitive questions in the world where did the coronavirus begin says he won’t let politics get in the way of his investigation.
Dominic Dwyer, who is a microbiologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, will travel to China again as part of a 10-member team of experts exploring the origin of the coronavirus.
But the probe is at the centre of a geopolitical storm, with China’s government stepping up efforts to suggest the virus originated abroad while the outgoing Trump administration in the US has continually blamed China for the global pandemic.
Australia has copped a significant diplomatic backlash from Beijing for originally proposing an independent inquiry earlier this year.
“As a doctor and a scientist, I think politics complicates getting the answers,” Dr Dwyer told the ABC.
“So I’d rather keep that aside and let other people argue the toss over that.”
Under an agreement between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China’s government, the overseas experts will assess the research already undertaken by Chinese scientists, who have been collecting samples in the original outbreak city Wuhan.
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Professor Dwyer, who worked on a WHO investigation into the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, said the team of international experts would travel to China and Wuhan at some point, but it’s not clear when.
“The timeline is still being negotiated and clearly there is a lot of logistics and sensitivities about organising this,” he said.
“Obviously the Chinese have done a vast amount of work in trying to understand what happened.
“So it’s a matter of reviewing what they have done so far, asking them what they think the gaps might be in their knowledge and working with them to help fill those gaps.”
Mr Dwyer will be part of a team of 10 experts sent over to China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.(ABC News: Bill Birtles)
Ability to get ground-breaking findings ‘probably limited’
The WHO investigation has been a political balancing act for all involved.
Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump withdrew funding for the WHO amid claims it was too heavily influenced by China’s government.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had been criticised for lavishing praise on China’s leader Xi Jinping in the early weeks of the pandemic, despite delays on confirming that human-to-human transmission was occurring.
Mr Trump’s sharp criticism of what he called “the China virus” and unproven claims from his administration that it could have leaked from a Wuhan lab fuelled a war of words.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman retweeted conspiracy theories about the US military originally bringing the virus to Wuhan during the world military games last year.
Health officials originally cited Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic.(Reuters)
And even though China lashed Australia for suggesting an independent inquiry back in April, Beijing eventually agreed to an EU-led proposal so long as the WHO conducted it.
“I think the ability of this group to come up with any ground-breaking findings is probably limited,” said Raine MacIntyre, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales.
“There will be many different kind of pressures coming to play, so my guess is it will stick to the less controversial aspects of the investigation.”
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China steps up efforts to suggest virus came from abroad
As the WHO study slowly gets underway, China’s government is increasingly suggesting the virus didn’t originate in China.
This week, China’s state newsagency Xinhua selectively highlighted a German virologist’s assessment, with a headline proclaiming the “Coronavirus pandemic starts from north Italy”.
A separate article in the Global Times highlighting a Chinese study declared “India likely birthplace of the virus”, but conceded scientists were “far from drawing a conclusion”.
A People’s Daily headline article from late November threw up another theory:
“COVID19 did not start in central China’s Wuhan but may come through imported frozen food and packaging: experts”.
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The efforts to highlight theories and preliminary studies comes despite China repeatedly warning other countries not to politicise the virus, saying “it’s a question for science”.
Critics also say the long delay between the presentation of initial patients with an unknown flu in late 2019 in Wuhan and the likely visit of overseas WHO experts early next year reduces the chances of finding the exact cause.
Professor Dwyer said the probe will be about finding some of the answers, not all of them.
“Finding the original animal or ‘patient zero’ may be very difficult if not impossible,” he said.
“But I’m confident we will certainly find answers to some of the questions, and my experience is if you sit down with your colleagues anywhere, and you respect each other’s skills, you actually do get the answers.
“The Chinese scientists, they want to know the answers as well.”
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