A team of World Health Organization (WHO) scientists investigating the origins of the coronavirus will fly to the central Chinese city of Wuhan from Singapore on Thursday, according to China’s foreign ministry.
Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed on Tuesday that the team would travel directly to Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s outbreak last winter and the focal point of the mission.
The confirmation came after a confusing false start last week when two members en route to the country were stopped by what the WHO described as “visa clearance” issues.
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WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday in Geneva that the international team was now on its way to China.
“We are pleased that an international team of scientists – distinguished experts from 10 institutions and countries – are commencing their travel to China to engage in and review scientific research with their Chinese counterparts on the origins of the virus,” Tedros said.
“Studies will begin in Wuhan to identify the potential source of infection of the early cases.”
Flying into Wuhan might ease travel arrangements for the international team, which comprises medical, veterinary and virology experts from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Qatar, Russia, Britain, the United States and Vietnam.
China’s health authorities are based in Beijing but authorities have tightened travel restrictions in the capital, following local infections linked to an imported case. The surrounding province of Hebei is also grappling with an outbreak.
In addition to completing 14 days of quarantine mandatory for overseas travellers to China, new rules for the city stipulate that travellers need to undergo an extra seven days of health monitoring or, if the environment or people on their flights tests positive, isolation.
Flight schedules from Singapore’s Changi Airport to Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan show one direct flight leaving early Thursday morning, by Singapore-based airline Scoot.
Though members of a separate team of WHO experts visited China and Wuhan last February for a WHO-China joint mission to understand the clinical disease, planning for the present mission took place over months amid a politically charged debate over where the virus emerged.
The US under the Donald Trump administration has sought to blame China for the outbreak, which was first identified in the country in late 2019. Beijing, meanwhile, has launched a campaign questioning whether the virus emerged in China or was merely first found there.
Wuhan, which recorded around 50,000 cases in two months last year, came under scrutiny as US lawmakers backed unsubstantiated theories that the virus could have come from a laboratory in the city, before spiralling into a global pandemic.
The WHO has said the search for the origin of the virus could lead outside China depending on what scientific evidence emerges, but the mission must begin in Wuhan where the first known cluster of cases was found.
The international team is expected to vet research that Chinese scientists have already done and work together to identify further areas of study. Little information about China’s own research into the origins of the virus has been released publicly.
Scientists say the virus probably came from an animal, likely a bat, before passing into humans, perhaps via an intermediary host. But where and how that happened, and which people were the first infected remains unknown.
Additional reporting by Holly Chik
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