Experts from the World Health Organisation visited a Wuhan hospital on Friday as the fieldwork began in a closely watched coronavirus origins probe that will take in a food market presumed to be “ground zero” of the pandemic.
But the WHO probe has led to a war of words between China and the United States, with Chinese officials rejecting it’s an investigation.
The United States wants a “robust and clear” international probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it was “imperative we get to the bottom” of how the virus appeared and spread worldwide.
Ms Psaki highlighted “great concern” over “misinformation” from “some sources in China.”
The WHO insists the probe will be tethered tightly to the science behind how the virus jumped to humans.
Beijing is desperate to take the air out of the blame game and instead train attention on its handling of and recovery from the outbreak.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on Friday flagged the visit as “a part of global research” into the pandemic.
“It is not an investigation,” Zhao Lijian told reporters.
In a tweet Thursday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he had had a “frank discussion” with China’s Health Minister Ma Xiaowei.
“I asked that the international scientists get the support, access & data needed, and the chance to engage fully with their Chinese counterparts,” he said.
WHO PROBE INTO VIRUS
The coronavirus has killed more than two million people, infected at least 100 million and hammered the global economy since first being detected about a year ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Earlier this month, a team of experts from the WHO, arrived in Wuhan after repeated delays to probe the virus’s origins.
Scientists agree that the disease has an animal origin and particular focus is on the Wuhan “wet market,” which sells live animals.
But former US president Donald Trump supported a theory that the virus could have instead originated in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, something China rejects.
Days before Mr Trump left office this month, the State Department attacked the Chinese Communist Party’s “deadly obsession with secrecy and control.”
It said that staff at the Wuhan lab had fallen sick with symptoms resembling COVID-19 in 2019, before any cases of the virus were made public.
Beijing has countered with arguments that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.
The government and state media have even tried to push conspiracy theories about a supposed link to a US biological weapons lab in Maryland.
Ms Psaki said the new Biden government was devoting significant resources of its own to understanding what happened and would not take the WHO report for granted.
Washington will “draw on information collected and analysed by our intelligence community” and also work with allies to evaluate the “credibility” of the international report.
In addition, the Biden administration intends to boost “our staffing on the ground in Beijing, which is something that fell back in the last administration.”
SEARCH FOR PATIENT ZERO
The WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan sought to downplay expectations of finding the origin of the pandemic straight away.
Success “is not measured necessarily in absolutely finding a source on the first mission,” he told a news conference in Geneva.
“This is a complicated business, but what we need to do is gather all of the data, all of the information, summarise all of these discussions, and come to an assessment as to how much more we know about the origins of the disease and what further studies may be needed to elucidate that.”
The WHO investigation has been hobbled by delays, and there are fears over access and the strength of evidence a year after the virus emerged in the central Chinese city.
The team met Chinese officials on Friday and then left their Wuhan hotel in a fleet of cars, trailed by a media pack reflecting the intense global scrutiny on a visit whose aim is to establish how the virus was transferred from animals to humans.
The Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine – where some of the earliest COVID-19 patients were admitted – is among the field visits.
The WHO said the team will later head to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Huanan market, and the Wuhan CDC laboratory, three sites now indelibly linked with the pandemic.
Details of the trip are being relayed via Twitter rather than Chinese authorities. Team member Peter Daszak described the first site visit as “extremely important”.
“We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work,” tweeted Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global NGO focused on infectious disease prevention.
The Huanan market – which remains boarded up – is believed to have been the first major cluster of infections
WHO’s Ryan said: “There is a very long list of site visits planned and face-to-face meetings continue. The visits will include the Wuhan institute of virology and other labs, the Wuhan market, early responders, hospitals in which the first clusters of cases occurred. It is a very busy, busy schedule.”