WUHAN, China (AP) – A global team of researchers arrived in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected on Thursday to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty over whether Beijing could trying to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The group sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint from the WHO chief.
Scientists suspect that the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since the end of 2019 has jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in southwestern China. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints that it has allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject it.
Fifteen members of the team were due to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday, but two tested positive for coronavirus antibodies before leaving Singapore and were retested there, the WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at Wuhan Airport and walked through a makeshift transparent plastic tunnel to the airport. The researchers, who wore face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of the public broadcaster CCTV. They are to start working with Chinese experts by video conference in quarantine.
The team includes viruses and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesperson said this week that it would “interact” with Chinese scientists, but gave no indication that they would be allowed to collect evidence.
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China has rejected requests for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the spread of the virus, which plunged the world economy into its deepest recession since the 1930s.
After Australia called for an independent inquiry in April, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other products.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher may have transmitted the virus to traders who transported him to Wuhan, said one of the WHO team, US group zoologist Peter Daszak. EcoHealth Alliance, to the Associated Press in November.
A single visit from scientists is unlikely to confirm the origins of the virus; Determining the animal reservoir of an epidemic is usually a comprehensive endeavor that requires years of research, including the collection of animal samples, genetic analyzes and epidemiological studies.
“The government needs to be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director of the Emerging Viral Infections Research Center at Chang Gung University in Taiwan.
The Chinese government has tried to confuse the origin of the virus. He promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak could have started with imports of contaminated seafood, a notion rejected by scientists and international agencies.
“WHO will have to carry out similar investigations in other places,” National Health Commission official Mi Feng said on Wednesday.
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