A team of scientists will visit and investigate the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology following repeated unsubstantiated claims suggesting the coronavirus may have leaked from the lab.
The World Health Organisation-led team will probe the lab, which researches viruses in bats, despite continued reservations from Beijing, who have categorically denied allegations the virus originated inside.
Earlier this month, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fuelled speculation surrounding the lab after claiming Washington had “reason to believe” workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill with Covid-like symptoms prior to the first known cases being detected in the city.
“Today’s revelations just scratch the surface of what is still hidden about Covid-19’s origin in China,” a ‘fact sheet’ released by the US said at the time.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying dismissed the claims as “lies” and a “conspiracy theory’.
The Communist Party of China has battled to deflect claims the virus originated in China, themselves peddling wild theories the virus came from overseas, including the US army laboratory at Fort Detrick, at every opportunity.
China’s president Xi Jinping has been concerned about China’s image since the pandemic began, with speculation surrounding the lab a further irritant to Beijing.
Chief virologist Shi Zhengli at the lab, often dubbed ‘Bat Woman’, previously told the BBC she would welcome a fair investigation at the lab, however her comments were quickly withdrawn by concerned officials.
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) August 11, 2020
Investigation plagued by complications
The team of WHO scientists left hotel quarantine in Wuhan on Thursday (local time) to begin field work, two weeks after arriving in the Chinese city where the virus emerged in late 2019.
The mission has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.
Despite the WHO criticising China last month over the delays, it revealed access had been granted to a variety of locations.
"The team plans to visit hospitals, laboratories and markets. Field visits will include the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Huanan market, Wuhan CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) laboratory," the WHO said in a tweet.
The team of independent experts, due to remain for two more weeks in China, will also speak with some of the first Covid-19 patients in Wuhan, it said.
"All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work," it said, adding: "They should receive the support, access and the data they need."
Mission’s success dependent on access
Thea Fischer, a Danish team member, said visiting the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the virus was initially believed to have spread, would provide insight into whether it was the epicentre of the outbreak or just an amplifier of the virus.
"It is now that the actual field work can begin and it is my expectation that for this part of the mission we will have unhindered access to the requested destinations and individuals," Fischer told Reuters by phone from Wuhan.
"But it is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100 per cent depending on access to the relevant sources,” she said.
“No matter how competent we are, how hard we work and how many stones we try to turn, this can only be possible with the support from China."
After leaving their quarantine hotel without speaking to journalists, team members boarded a bus to a lakeside hotel where part the building and grounds were cordoned off.
Several team members described long work days during their quarantine and relief at being able to leave their rooms.
"Slightly sad to say goodbye to my 'gym' & my 'office' where I've been holed up for last 2 wks!!" team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter along with photos of exercise equipment and a desk in his hotel room.
The team members' luggage, loaded onto the bus by workers in protective suits, included yoga mats and what appeared to be a guitar case.
Hours before the WHO announced their planned visits, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted: "Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the Covid-19 virus origins mission."
The WHO has sought to manage expectations.
"There are no guarantees of answers," WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said this month.
China's foreign ministry said the team would participate in seminars, visits and field trips.
China's foreign ministry has also hinted that the sudden closure of a US army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.
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