WHO team meets Chinese scientists as COVID investigation begins

Experts are in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, to piece together what happened in the initial outbreak.

The WHO team, which is investigating the origins of the coronavirus, began field work in Wuhan on Friday [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

A team of experts from the World Health Organization began its long-awaited investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, meeting a group of Chinese scientists in Wuhan ahead of a series of field visits to hospitals, laboratories and the now-closed Huanan market, which was linked to the first cases of the illness in the central Chinese city.

“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID-19 virus,” the WHO said in a tweet, stressing that the experts “should receive the support, access and data they need.”

The group emerged from two weeks of hotel quarantine on Thursday, during which they held daily virtual meetings with Chinese scientists who shared information on coronavirus studies completed in China. They also made requests for “more detailed underlying data”, the UN health agency said.

The first cases of what was then a “mysterious” new pneumonia were reported in Wuhan in late December 2019.

While life in the city has almost returned to normal after a total lockdown that stamped out the virus, the growing death toll and economic damage in the rest of the world is adding to the pressure to find out just where COVID-19 came from and how it made the jump to humans.

“First face to face meeting with our colleagues. Correction: facemask to facemask given the medical restrictions. Discussing our visiting program,” Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, tweeted on Friday.

“China teamleader prof Wannian joking about some technical glitches. Nice to see our colleagues after lengthy zoom meetings,” she said.

Koopmans earlier told Al Jazeera that the plan was to get “as good a picture as possible of the initial findings in Wuhan” and cautioned that there would be no quick, or easy answers.

Pandemic politics

The team is working against a backdrop of concern about access and transparency. The United States has accused China of covering up the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese scientists conducted the first phase of research.

A security member keeps watch at a cordoned-off section of a Wuhan hotel where members of the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are staying [Thomas Peter/Reuters]


“It is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100 percent depending on access to the relevant sources,” Thea Fischer, a Danish member of the team, told the Reuters news agency on Thursday.

“No matter how competent we are, how hard we work and how many stones we try to turn, this can only be possible with the support from China,” she said.

The group is expected to spend two more weeks in the country. As well as visiting Huanan it also expected to go to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One theory, rejected by China, is that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the government lab.

Since the outbreak hit world headlines a year ago, China has sought to take control of the narrative, taking action against doctors and citizen journalists in Wuhan and warning the families of the dead not to speak to the media.

It has also tried to push the idea that the virus came from somewhere else, with regular reports in state media of virus traces being found on the packaging of frozen foods imported from overseas. It has also sought to highlight the small number of scientific papers that have suggested COVID-19 was circulating in Europe in 2019.

China market
The Huanan market which was linked to the earliest cases of COVID-19 was closed and then cleared out early last year [File: cnsphoto via Reuters]

The foreign ministry has also hinted that the sudden closure of a US army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.

“At the early stage in China, it was a burden particularly for Wuhan people when everyone was calling it a Wuhan virus, which was humiliating,” Yang You, a 30-year-old resident of the city told Reuters. “If it could be traced to the source clearly, in my opinion, it could clear either China’s or Wuhan’s name.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies