A team of World Health Organisation researchers will start to formally investigate the origins of the coronavirus after completing two weeks of quarantine in the city of Wuhan.
The 13-member team, which left hotel quarantine on Friday morning (Australian time), is due to meet Chinese scientists and plans to visit labs, markets and hospitals in Wuhan.
It comes two weeks after they first arrived in the Chinese city where the virus emerged in late 2019, but authorities there are not the only ones to have come under scrutiny for their handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response last week said the WHO could have also acted faster and more forcefully to contain the spread of the virus.
The WHO’s 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.
Australia is among several countries, including the US, to have accused Beijing of downplaying the outbreak’s severity.
The WHO team, which is due to remain for two more weeks in China, “plans to visit hospitals, laboratories and markets”, it said in a tweet.
“Field visits will include the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Huanan market, Wuhan CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) laboratory,” it continued.
The team will also speak with some of the first COVID-19 patients in Wuhan.
“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work,” it said, adding: “They should receive the support, access and the data they need.”
The international team working to understand the origins of the #COVID19 virus completed its 2-week quarantine in Wuhan, #China on Thursday. As members start their field visits on Friday, they should receive the support, access and the data they need.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 28, 2021
Thea Fischer, a Danish team member, said visiting the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the virus was initially believed to have spread, would provide insight into whether it was the epicentre 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,” Ms Fischer said.
“But it is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100 per cent 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 without speaking to journalists, team members boarded a bus to a lakeside hotel where part 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.
Day 14 of our quarantine in Wuhan!! Slightly sad to say goodbye to my “gym” & my “office” where I’ve been holed up for last 2 wks!! (Clue – It’s all in the same room…). Moving into next phase of work now w/ @WHO mission team & China counterparts. pic.twitter.com/SC75H70WMK
— Peter Daszak (@PeterDaszak) January 28, 2021
The team members’ luggage, loaded onto the bus by workers in protective suits, included yoga mats and what appeared to be a guitar case.
Hours before the WHO announced their planned visits, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted: “Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the COVID19 virus origins mission.”
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.
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 US army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.