A team of experts from the World Health Organization began its long-awaited investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, 29 January, meeting a group of Chinese scientists in Wuhan ahead of a series of field visits to hospitals, laboratories and the now-closed Wuhan 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 team leader prof Wannian joking about some technical glitches said: ”Nice to see our colleagues after lengthy zoom meetings.
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.
”It is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100 per cent depending on access to the relevant sources, Thea Fischer, a Danish member of the team said.
“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.
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.
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.