WUHAN, China – A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus 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 World Health Organization was approved by President Xi Jinping's 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 ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.
The team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full body suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine but are to start working with Chinese experts via video conference.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus's spread. After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
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 U.S. group EcoHealth Alliance, told The Associated Press in November.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus's 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 Chinese government has tried to stir confusion about the virus's origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
According to WHO's published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some U.S. politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.
The coronavirus's exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly, said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. Scientists should focus instead on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time to blame anyone,” Shih said. “We shouldn't say, it's your fault.”
New COVID cases hit northeast China
BEIJING – China is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases in its frozen northeast as a World Health Organization team arrived to investigate the origins of the pandemic.
China on Thursday also reported its first new death attributed to COVID-19 in months, raising the toll to 4,635 among 87,844 cases. China's relatively low case figures are a testimony to the effectiveness of strict containment, tracing and quarantine measures. They have also raised questions about the tight hold the government maintains on all information related to the outbreak.
China has put more than 20 million people under varying degrees of lockdown in Hebei, Beijing and other areas in hopes of stemming infections ahead of next month's Lunar New Year holiday.