Wuhan (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic left its quarantine hotel in Wuhan on Thursday to begin field work, two weeks after arriving in the Chinese city where the virus emerged in late 2019.
The mission has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.
The team of independent experts is due to remain for two more weeks in China.
Thea Fischer, a Danish team member, said they planned to visit hospitals, clinics, and laboratories and to meet municipal and regional health authorities.
She said visiting the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the virus was initially believed to have spread, would provide insight into whether it was the epicenter of the outbreak or just an amplifier of the virus.
“It is now that the actual field work can begin, and it is my expectation that for this part of the mission we will have unhindered access to the requested destinations and individuals,” she told Reuters by phone from Wuhan.
“But it is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100% depending on access to the relevant sources. 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.
After leaving their quarantine hotel shortly after 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) without speaking to journalists, team members boarded a bus to a lakeside hotel, where a portion of the building and grounds were cordoned off.
Several team members described long work days during their quarantine, and relief at being able to leave their rooms.
“Slightly sad to say goodbye to my ‘gym’ & my ‘office’ where I’ve been holed up for last 2 wks!!,” team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter, along with photos of exercise equipment and a desk in his hotel room.
The team members’ luggage, loaded onto the bus by workers in protective suits, included yoga mats and what appeared to be a guitar case.
“Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the #COVID19 virus origins mission,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted on Thursday.
Science and Politics
The WHO has sought to manage expectations.
“There are no guarantees of answers,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told reporters this month.
China’s foreign ministry said the team would participate in seminars, visits and field trips.
The origin of COVID-19 has been highly politicised.
The investigating team had been set to arrive in Wuhan earlier in January, and China’s delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the head of the WHO, which former U.S. President Donald Trump accused of being “China-centric” early in the outbreak.
China has pushed the idea that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, with state media citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.
China’s foreign ministry has also hinted that the sudden closure of a U.S. army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.
Wuhan resident Tu Zhengwang, 28, said it was not certain that the virus had originated in the city.
“It could be other places,” he said. “But if you find the origin, whether it is in Wuhan or other places, you could prevent similar incidents from happening.”