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WHO researchers arrive in Wuhan to investigate coronavirus origins

Members of a World Health Organization team arrive in Wuhan, China, to investigate the coronavirus' origins.
A worker in protective gear directs World Health Organization researchers after their arrival Thursday in Wuhan, China, to investigate the coronavirus’ origins.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

World Health Organization researchers arrived in China on Thursday to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins amid uncertainty over whether the government might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

The team sent to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected, was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of the WHO.

Scientists suspect that the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019, jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in southern China. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints that it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested that the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that idea.

Fifteen team members were originally due to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday, but two tested positive for coronavirus antibodies before leaving Singapore and were being retested there, the WHO said in a statement on Twitter.

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The rest of the team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear of masks, goggles and full-body suits.

The researchers will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for the coronavirus, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV. They are to start working with Chinese experts via videoconference while in quarantine.

More than 20,000 villagers were taken by bus to centralized quarantine as China seeks to stem a new coronavirus outbreak in Hebei province.

The team includes viral and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam. A Chinese government spokesman said this week that the researchers would “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication of whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.

China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the coronavirus’ spread. In April, after Australia called 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 coronavirus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one WHO team member, zoologist Peter Daszak of U.S. group EcoHealth Alliance, told the Associated Press in November.

A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus’ 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 government should be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.

After the new coronavirus was first detected in China, scientists rushed to identify it, but the information was not quickly passed to the WHO.

The Chinese government has tried to sow confusion about the coronavirus’ 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.

“The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of China’s National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said Wednesday.

Some members of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced that they hadn’t received valid visas.

That might have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but the incident “raises the question [of whether] the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.

A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One of China’s top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

According to the WHO’s published agenda for its 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 Trump, have claimed.

A “scientific audit” of the institute’s records and safety measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. That would depend on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information, he said.

“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said, adding that the coronavirus’ exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly.

China has stirred controversy with its claims to have detected the coronavirus on packages of imported frozen food.

A year after the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, the city is now bustling, with few signs that it was once the epicenter of the outbreak in China. But some residents say they’re still eager to learn about its origin.

“We are curious where the pandemic came from and what the situation was. We live here so we are keen to know,” said Qin Qiong, owner of a chain of restaurants serving hot-and-sour noodles. She said she trusts in science to solve the question.

Although it may be challenging to find precisely the same coronavirus in animals as in humans, discovering closely related viruses might help explain how the disease first jumped from animals and clarify what preventive measures are needed to avoid future epidemics.

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.’”


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