COVID-19: WHO team leaves quarantine in Wuhan to begin coronavirus origins study

A World Health Organisation-led team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is due to begin fieldwork in Wuhan after completing two weeks of quarantine.

The virus first emerged in the Chinese city in late 2019 and the United States has accused China of hiding the extent of the outbreak.

The mission has been plagued by delays, concerns over access and bickering between China and the US, which has criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

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Sky’s Tom Cheshire, in Wuhan, said investigations were due to start properly on Friday.

He explained the WHO has said it was unlikely it would find an origin of the disease on this trip but that it was a “crucial starting point” and “the best place to look”.

He said the team was facing some restrictions though, adding: “We don’t know if they’re going to have the freedom to move around. We don’t know if they’ll visit the Institute of Virology, for instance.

“A lot depends on what Chinese scientists will be telling them because they have been doing their own investigations. Will they share that data? How useful will that data be?”

Cheshire said the WHO team had a “tough” job trying to work with Chinese authorities “who may not want to show them everything”.

The team were seen leaving their quarantine hotel to be transported by bus to another hotel where they will remain for the investigation.

A relative of a coronavirus victim in China is demanding to meet the WHO team, saying it should speak with affected families who allege they are being muffled by the Chinese government.

Zhang Hai’s father died of COVID-19 in February 2020. He has been organising relatives of victims to demand accountability from officials.

Mr Zhang says he is worried the WHO probe might be used to provide cover for alleged Chinese mistakes in the early days of the outbreak.

The WHO says the visit is a scientific mission to investigate the origins of the virus, not an effort to assign blame.

On Monday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official in the US, told the World Economic Forum the origins of the virus were still unknown, “a big black box, which is awful”.

Keiji Fukuda, a public health expert at the University of Hong Kong and a former WHO official said “it all comes down to what will the team have access to. Will they really be able to ask the questions that they want to ask?”.

Analysis from Sky’s Asia correspondent Tom Cheshire, in Wuhan:

It was a two-week wait for the WHO experts to clear quarantine – but the world has been waiting much longer than that for the investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to begin.

The question is: what will they find in Wuhan? Or, rather, what will they be allowed to find?

The WHO team will visit hospitals and the market linked to the first cluster of cases. More than a year on from the outbreak of COVID-19, those locations will offer no useful physical evidence.

Instead, the WHO will have to rely on interviews with doctors and Chinese scientists. They have been conducting their own investigations. The success of the WHO mission will depend on how full and frank that information sharing is.

Given the fact that COVID research has become a sensitive topic in China, with government approval required, that will be difficult. And the WHO has warned it is extremely unlikely that this trip alone will produce concrete results. Instead, it may set the terms for other points of inquiry.

But if things are difficult for the WHO on the ground, they are also not easy for China.

The government certainly wants to make the impression it is acting transparently by letting the WHO into China.

But if the experts are just given a Potemkin tour – perhaps even taken around the giant exhibition centre here in Wuhan that lauds the virus beating achievements of the Chinese Communist Party – the government will lose yet more credibility. And so will the WHO, accused by critics of being beholden to China.

To avoid that, they will have to produce substance, not just impression, in the end

Over three nights Sky News will host a series of special programmes examining the UK’s response to the pandemic.

Watch COVID Crisis: Learning the Lessons at 8pm on 9, 10 and 11 February

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