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WHO team investigating coronavirus in Wuhan says meetings have been frank

WHO investigators in Wuhan, China
World Health Organization investigators arrive for a field visit at a community center in Wuhan, China, on Thursday.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

World Health Organization investigators looking for clues to the origin of the coronavirus in Wuhan said that the Chinese side has provided a high level of cooperation, but cautioned against expecting immediate results from the visit.

“I keep saying that we need to be realistic, a short mission like this one will not have all the answers but it helps advance the understanding of the #virusorigin #wuhan,” WHO team member Hung Nguyen-Viet said in a tweet Thursday. Nguyen-Viet is co-leader of the Animal and Human Health Program of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

In an earlier tweet, zoologist and fellow WHO team member Peter Daszak praised meetings held Wednesday with staff at the key Wuhan Institute of Virology, including with Deputy Director Shi Zhengli, a virologist who worked with Daszak to track down the origins of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“Extremely important meeting today with staff at WIV including Dr Shi Zhengli. Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked & answered,” Daszak tweeted.

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The WHO team spent about two hours Thursday meeting with managers and residents at the Jiangxinyuan community administrative center in Wuhan’s Hanyang District. No details of the meeting were given.

Official statistics shows that there were at least 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases last year among nearly 10,000 people living in the area when the coronavirus surfaced.

Top Chinese officials have ordered strict controls on all COVID-19 research in the country, cloaking the search for the origins of the virus in secrecy.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected extensive virus samples, leading to unproven allegations that it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the coronavirus into the surrounding community. China has strongly denied that possibility and has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere.

The WHO team, which includes experts from 10 nations, has visited hospitals, research institutes, a traditional market tied to the outbreak and other sites.

Members of the team have met with institute researchers and managers, experts, vendors, residents and media representatives, the spokesperson for China’s National Health Commission, Mi Feng, told reporters at a briefing Thursday.

It is likely to take years and multiple investigations in many parts of the globe to confirm the origins of the coronavirus because of the exhaustive research necessary, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies required to pin down an outbreak’s animal reservoir. One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, but that has yet to be proven.

The World Health Organization urges more genomic sequencing to ensure new variants of the coronavirus are detected as pandemic enters its second year.

The first clusters of COVID-19 cases were detected in Wuhan in late 2019, prompting the government to put the city of 11 million under a strict 76-day lockdown. China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths — the bulk of them in Wuhan — with new cases largely concentrated in its northeast. Local lockdowns and travel restrictions are being imposed to contain new outbreaks.

New cases of local transmission fell to just 17 on Thursday as residents heed government calls to skip family visits and stay put during the Lunar New Year holiday later this month.

China has also pushed ahead with a plan to vaccinate 50 million people for COVID-19 by the middle of this month. As of Wednesday, more than 31 million doses had been administered, Mi told reporters.


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