An Australian virus expert who has flown to China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic says his team will be looking at events prior to one of the first known outbreaks at a Wuhan animal market.
NSW Health Pathology director Dominic Dwyer is one of 15 global team members who have been sent by the World Health Organisation to try to find out how the virus began its devastating spread.
He arrived in China last week and his team’s fieldwork will begin once a fortnight’s quarantine is over.
“The focus here is really on the very early cases of COVID-19 that occurred in Wuhan to try to identify where they might have picked up the infection,” Mr Dwyer told Channel 9’s Today show on Monday.
The scientists will be looking at how the outbreak at a so-called wet market in the city of Wuhan got started.
The seafood market was identified as a likely breeding ground for the virus after a cluster was identified there in December 2019.
The connection between the market and the early coronavirus cluster led scientists to suspect the virus could have spread from an animal to humans, although experts still aren’t sure.
“(We are) really concentrating on the first few cases. Even before the outbreak in the wet market in Wuhan,” Mr Dwyer said.
“There were cases around beforehand, where did they come from? What sort of history did they have in terms of animal exposure, or other sorts of exposures that we haven’t figured out?”
Understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic could help prevent the next pandemic, the WHO believes.
The purpose of the trip is not to assign blame, according to Mike Ryan, a top WHO infectious disease expert.
“These are emerging diseases that breach the barrier between animals and humans and cause devastation in human populations,” Mr Ryan told a press conference last week.
“It is an absolute requirement that we understand that interface and what is driving that dynamic and what specific issues resulted in diseases breaching that barrier.
“Let this mission and let other missions be about the science, not about the politics. We are looking for the answers here that may save us in future, not culprits and not people to blame.”
Mr Dwyer told the Today show his host country had been welcoming so far.
“We have been told that we will get access to what we want to, in terms of where we want to go and (what we want to) see,” he said.
“Places like the market or the research institutes or the hospitals. That’s all been promised to us. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating. But at this stage we have been offered any access we want.”