Lessons learned about coronavirus response, but variants present new concern: WHO expert

A number of lessons have already been gleaned about the international and scientific response to the novel coronavirus, but understanding emerging variants remains a murky area, the expert who led the recent World Health Organization (WHO) mission to China says.

“We clearly have to invest much more in understanding how these viruses are emerging,” Peter Ben Embarek said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.

“We also have to improve our surveillance of these emerging diseases so people [identify them] before they jump into humans. And when they emerge like last year, we shouldn’t wait too long before starting to look at the origin of these viruses.”

Those investigations should be happening in tandem with initial responses such as identifying treatment options and positive cases, Ben Embarek told CBC Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton.

The scientist is a food safety and animal diseases expert who was part of a team investigating the origins of the virus in Wuhan, China, where the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered.

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus, holds a chart during the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 9. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The four-week mission concluded earlier this month, with initial findings suggesting that the virus was introduced to humans through an “intermediary host species.”

There are also indications that there was no widespread transmission of the novel coronavirus before December 2019, though there is evidence there was “much wider transmission” during the second half of that month than previously thought, Ben Embarek said.

What’s the strategy for variants?

But one question that remains unanswered involves new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus — and whether the world has done enough to control them.

“I think we are dealing with them with a lot of concern and attention, and we are increasingly able to detect them,” Ben Embarek said.

“The big question is, are we good enough at handling them, or are we handling them [as we did] the first one — the original one — and taking the same strategy to control them?”

Ben Embarek said more conversations are needed about those strategies to see whether the measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 can also be applied to emerging variants.

“I think it’s a big question, and nobody has the answers, unfortunately,” he said.

The scientist said he hoped the report’s findings would be taken seriously, despite criticisms of WHO’s praise of China’s early handling of the outbreak.

“It’s also important for people to understand what this mission was and what it was not. It was not an investigation into any wrongdoing or … how the system in China operated from the start of this event,” Ben Embarek said.

“This was a joint study between Chinese counterparts and international counterparts trying to develop and conduct studies that would help us get a better understanding of what happened. And that’s what we did.”

The WHO is expected to present its preliminary report from the mission in the coming week.

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