A global team of researchers yesterday arrived in the Chinese city where the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins, amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The group sent to Wuhan by the WHO was approved by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest.
The Chinese Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.
Fifteen team members were to arrive in Wuhan, but two tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies before leaving Singapore and were being retested there, the WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full body suits.
They are to undergo a two-week quarantine, as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster China Central Television. They are to start working with Chinese experts via videoconference while in quarantine.
The team includes virus and other experts from the US, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesman said this week they would “exchange views” with Chinese scientists, but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
Beijing rejected demands for an international investigation after US President Donald Trump’s administration blamed Beijing for the virus’ spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth Alliance, told The Associated Press in November last year.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus’ origins; pinning down an outbreak’s animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavor that takes years of research, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
“The government must be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shih Shin-ru (施信如), director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.
Some members of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago, but had to turn back after Beijing announced they had not received valid visas.
That might have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but the incident “raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak first emerged.
One of China’s top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 SARS outbreak.
According to the WHO’s published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the novel coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some US politicians, including Trump, have claimed.
A “scientific audit” of institute records and safety measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, adding that depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
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