W.H.O. Team in Wuhan to Trace Coronavirus

W.H.O. Team in Wuhan to Trace Coronavirus

More than a year after a new coronavirus first emerged in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived on Thursday in the central city of Wuhan to begin hunting for its source.

But in a sign of Beijing’s continuing efforts to control the investigation, the team of scientists and W.H.O. employees almost immediately ran into obstacles. Two scientists were unable to enter China at the last minute and remained in Singapore because they tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, the W.H.O. said in a Twitter post.

The Chinese authorities required the remaining 13 experts to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in late 2019.

The investigation is a critical step in understanding how the virus jumped to humans from animals so that another pandemic can be avoided. Getting answers will most likely be difficult.

The Chinese government, notoriously wary of outside scrutiny, has repeatedly impeded the arrival of the team — and the investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full inquiry could take months, if not longer. The team must also navigate attempts by China to politicize the inquiry.

Here’s what to know about the investigation.

The Chinese government has demanded that Chinese scientists oversee important parts of the inquiry. It has also limited the global health agency’s access to important research and data.

The arrival of the experts was widely covered in the Chinese state news media on Thursday and trumpeted as a sign of China’s transparency. But several hours after the scientists landed, the W.H.O. disclosed that two members of the team were unable to join.

“Two scientists are still in #Singapore completing tests for #COVID19,” read a post published on the agency’s Twitter account. The W.H.O. said all members of the team had tested negative for the virus and coronavirus antibodies before traveling.

Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the inquiry will most likely be more political than scientific.

“You want this investigation to be thorough, not subject to politicization, independent and transparent,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”

Despite the troubles, the W.H.O. says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.

“W.H.O. has been committed to investigating the virus origins from the outset,” Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “We ask all countries to support these efforts by demonstrating openness and transparency.”

The team that arrived in Wuhan, according to the official broadcaster CGTN, will face a city radically transformed from when the virus first emerged, in late 2019. The city that went into lockdown on Jan. 23 last year and became a symbol of the virus’s devastation has been held up by Chinese officials a year later as a success story in vanquishing the virus — a city reborn.

How much access the team gets in China will be critical, public health experts say.

They should be able to review all the data collected by China’s Center for Disease Control on the outbreak, “including contact tracing, environmental sampling, genetic sequences and identification of patient zero,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It is important to do this comprehensively and transparently.”

The health agency has not said how long the inquiry will take, nor has it released a detailed itinerary for the team’s visit.

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