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WHO team meets with Chinese, plans to visit key Wuhan sites

(Chinese attendees, some wearing tags which reads “Expert Team,” leave from a conference area of a hotel where the World Health Organization team of researchers are staying in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. World Health Organization experts are to begin face-to-face meetings with their Chinese counterparts Friday in the central city of Wuhan at the start of the team’s long-awaited fact-finding mission into the origins of the coronavirus. AP Photo: Ng Han Guan)

By EMILY WANG FUJIYAMA, WUHAN, China (AP):- World Health Organization experts in Wuhan, China, to look into the origins of the new coronavirus met with their Chinese counterparts Friday and plan later to visit sites in the central city that will be key to their long-awaited fact-finding mission.

“First face to face meeting with our colleagues. Correction: facemask to facemask given the medical restrictions,” Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans tweeted around 9:30 a.m. (0130 GMT).

“Discussing our visiting program. China teamleader prof Wannian joking about some technical glitches. Nice to see our colleagues after lengthy Zoom meetings,” Koopman tweeted, referring apparently to top Chinese epidemiologist Liang Wannian, who has been a leader of China’s response team.

Their first in-person meetings should be followed by the first field visits in and around the industrial and transport hub, WHO said on Twitter.

It said the team requested “detailed underlying data” and planned to speak with early responders and some of the first COVID-19 patients, but didn’t give further details on the team’s agenda. Earlier, WHO tweeted that its team plans to visit hospitals, markets like the Huanan Seafood Market linked to many of the first cases, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and laboratories at facilities like the Wuhan Center for Disease Control.

The team’s mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.

“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID19 virus,” WHO tweeted.

Confirmation of the origins of the virus is likely to take years. Pinning down an outbreak’s animal reservoir typically requires exhaustive research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.

One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan. The Chinese government has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of frozen seafood tainted with the virus, a notion roundly rejected by international scientists and agencies.

A possible focus for investigators is the virology institute in the city. One of China’s top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The WHO team members had spent the past two weeks in a required quarantine, during which they had been communicating with Chinese officials by videoconferences to lay the groundwork for field visits.

At their new hotel, some were seen waving from balconies and people entering the hotel wore badges identifying them as other disease and health experts.

The first clusters of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan in late 2019. China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths, with new cases largely concentrated in its frigid northeast and local lockdowns and travel restrictions being imposed to contain the outbreaks.

New cases of local transmission continue to fall with just 36 announced on Friday, as far fewer Chinese than usual appear willing to travel for Lunar New Year.

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