dpa/GNA – The quarantine came to an end on Thursday for a team of World Health Organization (WHO) researchers in China hoping to learn more about the origins of Covid-19, meaning they can get to work.
China had required that team members spend a 14-day quarantine period in a hotel before they could begin their investigations in the city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have crossed from animals to humans in 2019.
China has disputed the theory that the disease started in Wuhan, even though that is the site of the first known instances of the disease, possibly because it does not want to be blamed as the source of the pandemic. It has lashed out against countries like Australia for demanding an investigation. The WHO mission there was delayed at least once due to visa paperwork problems.
But Chinese state TV reported on Thursday that the team would now get started. The 13 experts want to conduct interviews and visit hospitals. They also plan to go to the food market where the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was first encountered.
Traces of the virus were found particularly at wildlife traders’ stalls, although infections have also occurred that could not be attributed to the market.
The team has spent the two weeks of quarantine conducting videoconferences with Chinese colleagues.
But the researchers are playing down expectations, saying their main goal is to see which paths of inquiry are still open.
The scientists say that, during this trip, they will ascertain what research is under way before planning a second phase of investigations.
Researchers abroad are open to different avenues of investigation but many, including German epidemiologist Fabian Leendertz of the country’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control, say they still suspect the disease originated in bats from southern China.
Leendertz is also part of the investigation, although he is joining it remotely as he was unable to join the researchers in China for personal reasons.
China’s authorities also long cited wild animals as a possible source.
Genetic similarities suggest that the virus originated in bats, then jumped to humans through an intermediary host.
However, there has also been speculation as to whether the virus escaped from a laboratory, a theory China has denied.
Chinese propaganda has suggested for several months that the virus did not originate there at all.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called on the WHO’s team of experts to visit other countries as part of its investigations.
A theory is being propagated by China’s authorities and state-run media that the virus was introduced from another country in frozen food, based on traces of virus found in imported frozen goods.
However, scientists dispute whether such traces are sufficient to cause an infection.
So far, more than 100 million people have been infected with the virus worldwide, and more than 2 million have died due to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.