A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Wuhan on Thursday, more than six months after the probe was launched.
The team of virologists landed a week later than intended after China delayed granting visas, earning a rare rebuke from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, who said he was “very disappointed”. They are expected to be in Wuhan for about a month, two weeks of which will be spent in quarantine when the team members will work with Chinese scientists via video conference.
The visit comes as China is facing an outbreak of cases, with 138 new infections and the first confirmed death from coronavirus in months reported on Thursday. Authorities have imposed the most widespread restrictions since last year, placing curbs on about 23m people ahead of the lunar new year holiday next month.
The probe into Sars-Cov-2 has become a focal point for critics of the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic who argue Beijing has not been transparent about its origins.
Some have also accused the WHO of being too willing to let China dictate the terms of research of the investigation. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state and a leading China hawk, accused the organisation this week of being “corrupted by China’s influence”.
An official from China’s national health commission said on Wednesday that the Chinese government was willing to work with the WHO team but added that the organisation “will need to” also carry out investigations in other countries.
The WHO team will conduct its probe under a difficult political backdrop, with Chinese officials intensifying efforts to suggest the virus could have originated outside of the country. One theory suggested by Chinese experts is that the virus may have arrived via frozen foods, a possibility that the WHO team has said it will explore.
Mr Pompeo has previously promoted, without providing evidence, the possibility that the virus originated from a lab leak.
The difficulty of the WHO team’s task will be compounded by a year-long delay in being able to visit Wuhan. The Huanan seafood market, one of the first known locations connected to early infections, has been closed.
The prevailing theory among scientists researching the virus’s origins is that it came from bats, which have been founded to carry a coronavirus that is similar to the variation found in humans. However, multiple questions remain over the timing and route of transmission from bats to humans.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said this week the probe would look for answers that could save us in the future and was “not about finding someone to blame”.
The team arrived from Singapore and were greeted by local authorities in hazmat suits.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing