Tracing the origin of the coronavirus: WHO begins field visit in Wuhan

By Javier García

Wuhan, China, Jan. 27 (efe-epa).- An international team of 13 experts of the World Health Organization is set to begin its ground visit in Wuhan on Thursday to investigate the origins of the new coronavirus, after completing a mandatory 14-day quarantine at a hotel in the city.

The complicated mission – marred by delays and clashes between China and the US – can be key in independently probing how the first known cases of the new coronavirus – which continues to haunt the entire world – originated.

The central Chinese city of Wuhan was the first place in the world where the pathogen was identified in late 2019, and the international experts would retrace the steps of the first infections, supposedly linked to the Huanan fish and seafood market, where meat of wild animals was also sold.

“All hypotheses are on the table and it is definitely too early to come to a conclusion of exactly where this virus started either within or without China,” WHO health emergencies director Mike Ryan said on Friday.

The WHO team consists of global researchers, including scientists from the United States, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, Vietnam, Germany, and Qatar.

The group is headed by Dane Peter Ben Embarek, WHO’s leading expert in zoonoses: diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

It also includes other renowned specialists, such as Dutch virologist Mariom Koopmans, German microbiologist and veterinarian Fabian Leendertz and British zoologist Peter Daszak, who has experience in researching coronavirus among bats in China a few years ago.

On Wednesday Daszak tweeted from his quarantine hotel in Wuhan that after detecting the Covid outbreak in late December, Chinese scientists had been “intensely focused on dealing with the chaos of this outbreak,” including the sickness and deaths, which he considered a “normal response” to an epidemic.

In another tweet, he said that he “talked with multiple partners in China at this time – all were clearly flat-out working on the outbreak. No suggestion that they didn’t want help, but that wildlife investigation was not priority during rapidly evolving outbreak.”

International experts would accompany Chinese scientists to the Huanan market – which continues to be shut more than a year after the outbreak, and other key places of the city such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology and its maximum-security P4 lab.

The now-replaced US administration under former president Donald Trump had for months insisted that the virus had leaked from this lab in the city, capital of the Hubei province.

On Jan. 17, the US State Department claimed to have “fresh proof” that the virus originated in the laboratory, alleging that its employees had fallen sick in autumn 2019, without offering any evidence in support.

However, China rejected Washington’s claims as lies and conspiracy theories and has in turn claimed through state media that the virus had already been detected in many distant countries by autumn 2019.

Some Chinese scientists have also suggested the possibility that the new coronavirus may have originated from frozen food packets imported from other countries, as the virus has been often been detected on these products in the country.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said recently that the origin of the disease was a “serious scientific matter” and one should trust scientists and medical experts to reach “a conclusion based on science and facts.”

The WHO team leader said that his delegation would probe the hypothesis that the virus had escaped from a lab, even if it was “unlikely.”

“There is no evidence so far indicating that anyone was working with this virus in the past, there is no evidence to indicate that it would have escaped the laboratory in any way, but of course we will have that in mind when we look at the origin of this virus,” Ben Embarek said in a WHO video released earlier this month.

The majority of the international scientific community agrees that in all likelihood the virus had reached humans from the nature instead of a lab.

The team is also set to examine the hospital records in Wuhan and samples collected from sewage and blood donations, apart from visiting wild animals and interviewing the first patients, who were identified between Dec. 9-12, 2019, according to Chinese authorities.

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