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An international team of World Health Organization experts has emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan, to begin much-delayed fieldwork into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
The fact-finding mission has been beset by controversy, after the WHO accused China of dragging its heels over arrangements. The team arrived more than a year after doctors in the city first raised the alarm about a mystery new illness spreading among their patients. Details of where they will go and who they will speak to are shrouded in secrecy.
The coronavirus has killed more than 2 million people and infected at least 100 million globally.
China appears concerned the research could shed light on alleged missteps in its early response to the virus, that could open it up to international criticism, and perhaps even demands for financial compensation if it is found to have been negligent.
It has stifled domestic reporting about the outbreak, brought in controls on scientific research into the origins of the virus, and officials have also suggested repeatedly that the disease could have come from abroad.
These claims range from suggestions the search into the origins of Covid-19 should investigate bat habitats in neighbouring south-east Asia, which has been echoed by a WHO expert, to an insinuation – made without evidence – that the US military could have brought the virus to Wuhan.
The research team now on the ground have spent 14 days in hotel quarantine. They were seen leaving their hotel on Thursday afternoon, their luggage handled by people in full protective suits, despite the two weeks of isolation.
Earlier this week relatives of Wuhan’s coronavirus dead said Chinese authorities had deleted their social media group and told them to keep quiet while the WHO team was in the city.
On Thursday, a WHO spokesman said: “The team is deeply sympathetic to patients who have survived Covid-19 and families of those who lost their lives due to Covid-19. The team will speak with some of early Covid-19 patients and possibly some families of deceased.”
Long negotiations between the two sides over the terms of the visit led to a rare complaint from the WHO that China was taking too long to make final arrangements.
China, which has strongly opposed an independent investigation it could not fully control, said the matter was complicated and that Chinese medical staff were preoccupied with new virus clusters in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.
The expert investigators are almost certain to have requested a visit to the Hunan seafood market, which is linked to a cluster of early cases, and where some stalls sold wild animals that scientists initially suspected may have been the origin of the virus.
Subsequent discoveries of earlier cases challenged that theory, but access to samples from the market could be critical to the WHO mission.
They may also seek to visit hospitals that treated some of the first patients, and a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology which investigates bat coronaviruses.
US officials in the previous Trump administration suggested without offering evidence that the virus could have escaped from the institute. Experts say it’s unlikely that the new coronavirus emerged from the lab in Wuhan and overwhelmingly agree that analysis of the new coronavirus’s genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans.
While the WHO was criticised early on, especially by the US under Donald Trump, for not being critical enough of the Chinese response, it recently accused China and other countries of moving too slowly at the start of the outbreak, drawing a rare admission from the Chinese side that it could have done better.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: WHO team exits Wuhan quarantine to start Covid fact-finding mission | World news