EXPLAINER: What is WHO team in Wuhan looking for

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WUHAN, China (AP) – The team of international researchers from the WHO arrived in Wuhan, central China on Thursday, hoping to find clues to the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The visit was shrouded in secrecy, with neither China nor the WHO revealing exactly what the team will do or where it will go. Tracing the origins will likely be a multi-year effort that could help prevent future pandemics.

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WHY WUHAN?

The industrial and transportation hub on the Yangtze River is the first place the coronavirus appeared in the world. It’s possible that the virus has come to Wuhan undetected elsewhere, but the city of 11 million is a logical place for the mission to begin.

People started to fall ill in December 2019, with many having ties to a large food market that sold live animals. The growing number of patients set off alarms that prompted the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention to send a team to investigate.

The disease is said to ravage Wuhan before being brought under control in March. The city was closed on January 23 with little to no warning. The hardships endured and the lives lost became a source of sadness and pride for residents once the 76-day lockdown was lifted on April 8.

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WHAT IS THE TEAM AGENDA?

They must first self-quarantine for 14 days, during which they will work with their Chinese counterparts via video conference. Possible visits after quarantine are the Huanan Seafood Market, the site from the December 2019 case group and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Scientists initially suspected that the virus came from wild animals sold in the market. The market has since been largely excluded, but it could provide clues as to how the virus has spread so widely. Market samples may still be available, as well as testimonials from those involved in the early response.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology maintains a large archive of bat coronavirus genetic sequences constructed in the wake of the 2003 SARS pandemic, which spread from China to many countries. WHO team members hope to have access to logbooks and laboratory data, junior and senior researchers, as well as safety protocols for sample collection, storage and analysis.

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WHY THE SECRET?

China has firmly rejected calls for an independent external investigation. The WHO chief recently expressed his impatience over the time it took China to make arrangements for the expert team’s visit.

The ruling Communist Party maintains tight control over news and is particularly concerned about any revelations about its handling of the virus that could open it up to international criticism and financial demands.

China has hushed up independent reports of the outbreak and released little information on its research into the origins of the virus. PA investigation found government strictly controlled all scientific research related to epidemic and prohibits researchers from speaking to the press.

State media continue to run reports suggesting the virus could have originated elsewhere. Announcing the experts’ visit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that “tracing the origin of the virus will most likely involve multiple countries and localities.”

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