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WHO teams arrive in Wuhan to investigate pandemic origins

WUHAN, China (AP) – A global group of researchers arrived in the Chinese city on Thursday, where the coronavirus pandemic was first discovered to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins in connection with uncertainty over whether Beijing may be trying to prevent embarrassing discoveries.

The 10-member team, sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization, was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic strife that led to an unusual public complaint from the WHO leader.

Researchers suspect that the virus, which has killed 1

.9 million people since the end of 2019, spread to humans from bats or other animals, likely in southwestern China. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints that it allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but researchers deny it.

The team arrived at Wuhan Airport just over 11 a.m. on a light yellow Scoot jet and went through a temporary clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore only face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear complete with mask, goggles and overalls.

Team members include viruses and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.

A government spokesman said this week that they would “exchange views” with Chinese researchers, but gave no indication as to whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.

They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel for state broadcaster CCTV. They will start working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.

China rejected calls for an international inquiry after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the spread of the virus, which plunged the global economy into its deepest decline since the 1930s.

After Australia requested an independent inquiry in April, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.

One possibility is that a game trap may have transmitted the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth Alliance, told the Associated Press in November.

A single visit by researchers is unlikely to confirm the origin of the virus; Attaching an outbreak animal container is typically an exhaustive effort that takes many years of research, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis, and epidemiological studies.

“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.

The Chinese government has tried to create confusion about the origin of the virus. It has advanced theories with little evidence that the outbreak may have started with the importation of spotted seafood, a view rejected by international researchers and agencies.

“The WHO will have to conduct similar studies elsewhere,” a National Health Commission official, Mi Feng, said on Wednesday.

Some of the WHO team were on their way to China a week ago but had to return after Beijing announced they had not received valid visas.

It could 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.

One possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak began. One of China’s largest virus research laboratories, it built an archive of genetic information on bat coronavirus after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

In accordance with the WHO’s published agenda for its original research, there are no plans to assess whether there may have been an unintentional release of coronavirus at the Wuhan laboratory, as some U.S. politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.

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.

“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.

An AP investigation found the government introduced control over research in the outbreak and prevented researchers from talking to journalists.

The exact origin of the coronavirus can never be traced because viruses change rapidly, Woolhouse said.

While it can be challenging to find exactly the same COVID-19 virus in animals as in humans, detecting closely related viruses can help explain how the disease first jumped from animals, and clarify what preventative measures are needed. to avoid future epidemics.

Researchers should instead focus on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.

“It’s not time to blame anyone,” Shih said. “We should not say it’s your fault.”


Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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