WHO begins Wuhan mission to hunt for origin of Covid amid heavy secrecy

By Javier Garcia

Wuhan, China, Jan 28 (efe-epa).- International scientists with the World Health Organization on Thursday began their mission on the ground in Wuhan, China, to investigate the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but the team made no public statement and did not provide information about its agenda amid considerable secrecy.

China and the international health organization did not offer any details about when the WHO team members would finish their quarantine in a modest hotel in the capital of Hubei province or about their scheduled program for their mission, or even about where they were intending to stay in Wuhan once their period of confinement ends.

In addition, after more than nine hours waiting outside the barriers surrounding the quarantine site, reporters noted that several vehicles had been parked in front of theirs to prevent them from filming the members of the WHO mission when they boarded the bus that would take them to their new lodgings late in the afternoon.

Amid all this secrecy and obfuscation, some journalists tried to follow the bus through the streets of Wuhan to determine its destination, which they finally found to be a luxury hotel on the outskirts of the city with a cordoned and walled-off zone that nobody was allowed to approach so that they could not get close to the scientists, EFE noted.

The little that became known about the mission’s activities during the past two weeks of quarantine came through messages that some team members posted on Thursday on Twitter.

Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the mission, when asked how many books he had read during his confinement said that they had not been in strict quarantine at all, but rather having meetings from 10-13 hours each day, along with plenty of time for discussions and e-mail but “no time for books, movies or the like. A bit of exercise early morning in the room or during some of the online meetings.”

Meanwhile, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said at a press conference in Copenhagen that the 14 days of confinement had been “productive” and that the mission members had been briefed and otherwise prepared by its Chinese colleagues in different areas.

Each day, he said, the team was given many hours of presentations and data exchange.

Full access to the data of Chinese experts and access to all sites of interest to the investigation have been the main demands by Western countries to ensure that the mission is effective.

WHO general director Tedros Adhanom on Wednesday held a telephone conversation with Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei and pushed for Chinese cooperation with the international team.

“Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the COVID19 virus origins mission,” the WHO chief tweeted.

“I asked that the international scientists get the support, access & data needed, and the chance to engage fully with their Chinese counterparts,” he added.

The WHO team dispatched to Wuhan – made up of WHO members and other international scientists – includes experts from the United States, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Vietnam and Qatar.

Ben Emabarek is the WHO’s top expert in animal transmission of diseases.

Also participating in the mission are recognized specialists including Dutch virologist Mariom Koopmans, German microbiolgist and veterinarian Fabian Leendertz and British zoologist Peter Daszak, who some years ago investigated the coronavirus in bats in China.

The experts, along with their Chinese colleagues, will visit Wuhan’s Huanan fish and seafood market – one of the sites where the coronavirus outbreak was first noticed and which has been shut down for more than a year – possibly along with other key places in the city such as the Wuhan Virology Institute and its maximum security P4 laboratory, although it is not known when those visits might occur.

The team also wants to examine Wuhan hospital records, wastewater samples and blood donations as well as to visit local wild animal farms and interview the patients who were first diagnosed with the virus between Dec. 9-12, 2020, Chinese authorities said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday that the mission, over the next two weeks, will participate in seminars, visits to key sites and fieldwork.

“All these activities must be carried out in accord with the principle of tracing the scientific origin of the virus and with the ultimate aim of preventing future risks and protecting people’s safety and the health,” he said.

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