A team of investigators working on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO) has visited a major virus research laboratory in China’s central city of Wuhan and is scheduled to meet a top virologist, as they continue to seek clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Driving through the thick morning mist, the team, led by WHO virus expert Peter Ben Embarek, arrived at the heavily guarded Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday morning.
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“I am looking forward to a very productive day, meeting the key people here and asking all the important questions that need to be asked,” team member Peter Daszak, who is the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, said from his car as it drove in.
The institute has been at the centre of a number of conspiracy theories claiming a laboratory leak was the trigger for the first coronavirus outbreak at the end of 2019.
Most scientists reject the hypothesis, but some speculate that a virus captured from the wild could have figured in experiments at the lab to test the risks of a human spillover and then escaped via an infected staff member.
Some scientists have called for China to release details of all coronavirus samples studied at the lab, to see which most closely resembles SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease.
Former US President Donald Trump and his supporters seized enthusiastically on rumours and speculations, amplifying them with conspiracy theories that China deliberately leaked the virus.
Then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted last year that there was “significant evidence” that the virus came from the lab, while releasing no proof and acknowledging that there was no certainty.
The @WHO team are still inside #Wuhan’s Institute of Virology. They’re investigating the theory #COVID19 leaked from here. Team members had been in talks with scientists from this lab in the lead-up to their visit. Here’s my @AJEnglish update on what we know so far: pic.twitter.com/P8bXjWUsVs
— Katrina Yu (@Katmyu) February 3, 2021
Chinese state broadcaster CGTN said the WHO team would “visit the national biosafety laboratory and exchange ideas with experts of the institute on their daily work, international scientific cooperation, anti-epidemic efforts and contribution”.
China has faced criticism at home and abroad for playing down the initial outbreak and concealing information when the illness first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, raising concern about the panel’s investigation.
But Daszak told journalists the mission was proceeding “very well”, as the group was driven into an animal disease control centre.
China is also determined to put the focus on its recovery from the outbreak and the WHO team toured a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery from the pandemic in Wuhan on Saturday.
On Sunday the team went to the market in Wuhan where one of the first reported clusters of infections emerged more than a year ago, which Daszak tweeted was a “critical” stop.
Shi Zhengli, one of China’s leading experts on bat coronaviruses and deputy director of the Wuhan lab, raised some eyebrows in a June 2020 interview with Scientific American magazine in which she said she was initially anxious over whether the virus had leaked from the facility.
But subsequent checks revealed that none of the gene sequences matched the viruses held by the lab, Shi said, adding: “I had not slept a wink for days.”
She later said she would “bet her life that (the new coronavirus) had nothing to do with the lab”, according to Chinese state media.
On Wednesday, Shi, also known as the “Bat Woman”, is scheduled to meet the investigators, Embarek, the WHO team leader, told China’s state-owned newspaper, Global Times.