Professor Dominic Dwyer, NSW Health Pathology's Medical Virologist and Director of Public Health Pathology, has returned from Wuhan, China, where he and a small team of researchers representing the World Health Organisation (WHO), investigated the origins of COVID-19.

Prof Dwyer shares his own personal account of this courageous and incredibly important journey.

'Our mission in Wuhan was a fascinating yet difficult experience – the science was wide-ranging, and the media and political pressure extraordinary.

'The mission started in late 2020, with the WHO team meeting on Zoom (unfortunately usually on Geneva time zones) to plan the studies. Then we had two weeks 'hard' hotel quarantine with daily online meetings with Chinese colleagues from various government agencies, led by the National Health Commission. This was followed by a 'light' quarantine for another two weeks, analogous to a sporting team 'bubble', where we could meet face to face, but not wander around the city.

'The work of the joint WHO–China project was organised into three areas:

  • the animal and environmental aspects of the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan
  • the viral molecular epidemiology, and
  • the early clinical and epidemiology studies.

'We visited the Huanan 'wet' market, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the public health laboratories in both the Hubei Province CDC and the Wuhan CDC. It was easy to see how the market was such an 'amplifier' for the outbreak – crowded, lots of small stalls, and dubious ventilation and drainage.

'A list of origins hypotheses was generated and 'rated' on the basis of the available evidence, and further work in China and elsewhere recommended. The viral sequence data and the epidemiology suggested there had been substantial unrecognised circulation in Wuhan in December 2019 through asymptomatic or mild disease transmission, and the 174 severe cases notified in December were but the tip of the iceberg.

'Then back to experience hotel quarantine Sydney-style. The work has been punctuated by 12 nose/throat swabs, five blood samples, 20 oxygen and blood pressure measurements, 87 temperature assessments and more than 30 media interviews with outlets across Australia and around the world. I would like to acknowledge the support and assistance of the NSWHP Incident Management Team, colleagues at the ICPMR and Public Health Pathology, and the Strategic Communications team. The sooner the vaccine is administered to everyone the sooner we can get back to normal!'

Professor Dominic Dwyer
Medical Virologist,
Director of Public Health Pathology, NSW Health Pathology,
Director, NSWHP Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research.

Current as at: Thursday 18 March 2021
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW