An international team of experts due to travel to China next month to probe the animal origins of COVID-19 will go to Wuhan and will carry out their investigation freely, the WHO said on Friday.
Asked about the international mission, which WHO has been working for months to get to China, World Health Organisation emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters the experts were expected to travel ‘in the first week of January’.
‘There will be quarantine arrangements, obviously, we have to. As ever, we will have to comply with whatever the arrangements are for risk management in travel on arrival and in China itself,’ he said.
A year into the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 1.7 million people and infected close to 75 million globally, the question of where the virus came from and how it first crossed over from animals to humans remains a mystery.
The WHO has for months been working to send the team of 10 international experts, including epidemiologists and animal health specialists, to China.
The UN health agency sent an advance team to Beijing in July to lay the groundwork for the international probe.
But until this week it had remained unclear when the larger team of scientists would be able to travel to China to begin epidemiological studies to try to identify the first human cases and their source of infection.
There had been concerns about whether the experts would be permitted to travel to Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced last December.
But Ryan insisted Friday that while the experts would of course pass through Beijing, there was no doubt ‘the team will visit Wuhan’.
‘That’s the purpose of the mission,’ he said.
‘The purpose of the mission is to go to the original point at which human cases were detected, and we fully expect to do that.’
He also bristled at a question about whether they would be working ‘under Chinese supervision’ while in China.
‘It’s a team of international experts with international renown, will work with our Chinese colleagues,’ he said.
‘They will not be supervised by Chinese officials.’
‘We will operate as we would operate in any member state, at their invitation, with gratefulness for their support to that and with the full intention of pursuing the scientific principles that this organisation has always stood for,’ he insisted.
WHO, he said, would ‘provide all the support necessary’ to the team ‘in order to find and learn more about the origin and source of this virus.’
Scientists initially believed the killer virus jumped from animals to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected late last year.
But experts now think the market may not have been the origin of the outbreak, but perhaps rather a place where it was ‘amplified’.
It is widely assumed that the virus originally came from bats, but the intermediate animal host that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown.
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