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WHO Wuhan team leaves quarantine for COVID origin research



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WHO Wuhan team leaves quarantine for COVID origin research


On Thursday, a team from the World Health Organization emerged from a quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan to begin field work on a fact-finding mission on the source of the COVID-19 pandemic virus.

After arrival in China, the researchers, who were expected to complete 14 days in quarantine, left their quarantine hotel and boarded a bus at mid-afternoon.

As China tries to escape criticism for perceived missteps in its early response to the outbreak, the mission has become politically charged. A significant issue is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and with whom they will be able to talk.

The entrance to the hotel was blocked by yellow barriers, keeping the media at a distance. Staff in full protective gear could be seen loading their luggage onto the bus, including two musical instruments, a dumbbell and four yoga mattresses, before the researchers boarded.

As the researchers boarded the bus, the hotel workers waved farewell, probably going to another hotel. The bus driver was wearing a white full-body security suit. Face masks were worn by the researchers.

Former WHO official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the team in Wuhan, cautioned earlier this month against anticipating any breakthroughs, saying it may take years for any firm conclusions to be reached on the origin of the virus.

“This is well over a year ago now, when it all began,” he said. Too much of the tangible proof will be gone. People’s memories are imprecise and the physical structure of certain locations is probably going to be different from what they were and how people walk about and so on.

The Huanan Seafood Market, which was related to many of the first outbreaks, as well as research institutes and hospitals that treated patients at the height of the outbreak, are among the places they could visit.

The mission came about only after significant disagreements between the two sides that led to a rare WHO protest that it took too long for China to make the final arrangements.

China, which strongly opposed an independent inquiry that it could not completely monitor, said the matter was complicated and that Beijing, Shanghai and other cities were concerned with new virus clusters for Chinese medical personnel.

While the WHO was criticised early on, especially by the U.S., for not being adequately supportive of the Chinese response, China and other nations were recently accused of acting too slowly at the beginning of the outbreak, drawing a rare concession from the Chinese side that it should have done better.

Overall, however, China has staunchly defended its reaction, likely out of concern about the reputational or even financial costs if it has been found to be lacking.

“WHO and global experts have fully affirmed the success of China’s epidemic prevention and the tracing of past origins,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday. “Both sides have a fundamental consensus on origin-related research cooperation and related work is progressing smoothly.”

Chinese officials and state media have attempted to challenge whether the virus has even begun in China. Most researchers claim that it originated from bats before being transferred to another species and then to humans, probably in southwest China or neighbouring areas of Southeast Asia.

The hunt for roots would seek to decide when and exactly how that happened.

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