WUHAN, China – A World Health Organization team emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday to begin fieldwork on an information mission on the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
The researchers, who had to be quarantined for 14 days after arriving in China, left their quarantine hotel and boarded a bus that afternoon.
The mission is politically charged as China tries to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.
An important question is where the Chinese side will allow researchers to go and who they can talk to.
Yellow barriers blocked the entrance to the hotel and kept the media at a distance. Before the researchers boarded, workers in full protective gear could be seen loading their luggage onto the bus. The driver wore a white full-body protective suit and the researchers wore face masks.
Earlier this month, former WHO official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the Wuhan team, warned of expecting breakthroughs and said it could be years before definitive conclusions can be drawn about the virus’ origin.
“It was well over a year ago when it all started,” he said.
“So much physical evidence will be gone. People’s memories are inaccurate and likely the physical arrangement of many places will be different.”
Places the WHO team could visit include the Huanan fish market, which has been linked to many of the first cases, as well as research institutes and hospitals that treated patients at the height of the outbreak.
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The mission came about only after significant disputes between the two sides, which led to a rare complaint from WHO that it was taking too long for China to make the final arrangements. China has strongly opposed an independent investigation that it could not fully control.
While the WHO was early criticized, especially by the United States, for not judging the Chinese response critically enough, it recently accused China and other countries of proceeding too slowly at the beginning of the outbreak – something that the Chinese side rarely admitted it could have been better.
Overall, however, China has firmly defended its pandemic response.
“WHO and global experts have fully reiterated the success of China’s epidemic prevention and tracing work in the past,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday. “Both sides agree on the collaboration on origin research, and the related work is progressing smoothly.”
Chinese officials and state media have tried to cast doubt on whether the virus has emerged in China. Most experts believe it came from bats, possibly from southwest China or neighboring areas of Southeast Asia, before it was passed on to other animals and then to humans.