China bars two WHO investigators for previously having COVID-19

Chinese authorities have prevented two members of the World Health Organization team from entering the country, due to tests that show the investigators have had the coronavirus at some point.

“All team members had multiple negative PCR and antibody tests for COVID-19 in their home countries prior to traveling,” the WHO announced on Twitter. “They were tested again in [Singapore] and were all negative. … But two members tested positive for IgM antibodies.”

The PCR test is a diagnostic used to identify people who currently have the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. IgM antibodies are the first countermeasure produced by immune system’s response to the coronavirus, as distinguished from IgG antibodies, which are thought by some medical professionals to develop later than IgM antibodies.

“IgM and IgG antibodies can arise nearly simultaneously in serum within 2 to 3 weeks after illness onset,” the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes. “Thus, detection of IgM without IgG is uncommon. How long IgM and IgG antibodies remain detectable following infection is not known.”

The other 13 WHO investigators will quarantine for two weeks in Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic originated. “During this period, Chinese scientists and medical experts will have exchanges with them via video link,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday.

China’s censorship of early warnings about the coronavirus have drawn international condemnation, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasizing that Beijing “destroyed existing samples” of the virus when it was first detected and refused to share samples with foreign governments, and faulting the WHO for failing to disclose China’s refusal to share information.

“When push came to shove, when it really mattered most, when there was a pandemic in China. … I’m saying this on a firm intelligence foundation, a deal was made,” Pompeo reportedly told British lawmakers this summer. “There was a deal-making election, and when push came to shove, you get dead Britons because of the deal that was made.”

WHO officials have maintained a collegial tone during their bid for access to the mainland, decrying as “unfortunate” the tendency to blame China for the pandemic. “Starting at the first incident that we learned about the original group of cases in Wuhan, we will put all the scientific information that has already been collected by our colleagues in China together and discuss what does that tell us? Are there pieces of information that we would like to add? How could that be done?” professor Marion Koopmans, a member of the team sent by the WHO, told Chinese state-run media. “I don’t think we should be pointing fingers here.”

International observers are pessimistic about the prospects of an adequate investigation. “The major concern here is the origin of the outbreak has been so politicized,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Yanzhong Huang told the New York Times. “That has really narrowed the space for the W.H.O. to have an independent, objective and scientific investigation.”