A team from the World Health Organization has launched its investigation into the origin of the coronavirus in China, despite concerns that the Beijing government might try to block any embarrassing findings.
Thirteen researchers arrived in Wuhan, China, on Thursday after months of discussions with President Xi Jinping’s government.
The team includes virologists and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
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The team will adhere to a two-week quarantine – per. Protocol – but team members begin work via video conference with Chinese experts. Two members of the original team also had to stay in Singapore after testing positive for COVID-19, but they will follow when testing negative.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city, where the outbreak only occurred in late 2019. One of China’s best virus research laboratories, it built an archive of genetic information on bat coronavirus after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The investigation begins after months of discussions and further bureaucratic obstacles, as China announced that some of the team members had not received valid visas.
“The government needs to be very transparent and cooperative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director of the Research Center for Emerging Virus Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.
Beijing has long resisted demands for an international investigation and has instead pushed edge theories that the virus entered China from abroad.
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When Australia demanded an independent inquiry into the origin of the virus, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian goods.
“The WHO will have to conduct similar investigations elsewhere,” a National Health Commission official, Mi Feng, said on Wednesday.
Efforts to carefully protect information about the virus and its origin may have led to delayed pandemic warnings and difficulties in establishing early test features.
A “scientific review” of the institute’s records and security measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said it depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
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“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.