WUHAN, China (AP) – A global team of researchers arrived in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected on Thursday to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty over whether Beijing could trying to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The group sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization has been approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint from the WHO chief.
Scientists suspect that the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since the end of 2019 has jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in southwestern China. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it has allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject it.
Fifteen team members were due to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday, but two tested positive for coronavirus antibodies before leaving Singapore and were retested there, the WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at Wuhan Airport and walked through a makeshift transparent plastic tunnel to the airport. The researchers, who wore face masks, were met by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of the public broadcaster CCTV. They must start working with Chinese experts by video conference in quarantine.
The team includes viruses and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesperson said this week it would “exchange views” with Chinese scientists, but gave no indication that they would be allowed to collect evidence.
China has rejected requests for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the spread of the virus, which plunged the world economy into its deepest recession since the 1930s.
After Australia called for an independent investigation in April, Beijing responded by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other products.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher may have transmitted the virus to traders who transported him to Wuhan, said one of the WHO team, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth. Alliance, to the Associated Press in November.
A single visit from scientists is unlikely to confirm the origins of the virus; Determining the animal reservoir of an epidemic is usually a comprehensive endeavor that requires years of research, including the collection of animal samples, genetic analyzes and epidemiological studies.
“The government has to be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director of the Emerging Viral Infections Research Center at Chang Gung University in Taiwan.
The Chinese government has tried to confuse the origin of the virus. He promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak could have started with imports of contaminated seafood, a notion rejected by scientists and international agencies.
“WHO will have to conduct similar inquiries in other places,” National Health Commission official Mi Feng said on Wednesday.
Some members of the WHO team were on their way to China a week ago, but had to turn around after Beijing announced they had not received valid visas.
It could have been “bureaucratic nonsense,” but the incident “raises the question of whether Chinese authorities were trying to intervene,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
A possible focus of interest for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak first appeared. One of China’s top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information on bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
According to the program published by the WHO for its research on the origins, there are no plans to assess whether there could have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan laboratory, as some American politicians have claimed, including President Donald Trump.
A “scientific audit” of the Institute’s records and security measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said it depends on the willingness of the Chinese authorities to share the information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
A PA investigation found that the government had imposed controls on research into the outbreak and was preventing scientists from speaking to reporters.
The exact origin of the coronavirus may never be traced because viruses change quickly, Woolhouse said.
A year after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, the city is now bustling, with few signs that it was once the epicenter of the outbreak in China. But some locals say they’re still eager to learn more about its origin.
“We, the inhabitants, take it very seriously. We wonder where the pandemic came from and what the situation was. We live here, so we can’t wait to find out, ”said Qin Qiong, owner of a restaurant chain serving hot and sour noodles. She said she trusted science to resolve the issue.
While it may be difficult to find the exact same COVID-19 virus in animals as it does in humans, the discovery of closely related viruses could help explain how the disease first emerged from animals and clarify measures preventive measures necessary to avoid future epidemics.
Instead, scientists should focus on building a “full picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time to blame anyone,” Shih said. “We shouldn’t be saying it’s your fault.”
Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan.
A HuffPost guide to the coronavirus
As cases of COVID-19 increase, it’s more important than ever to stay connected and informed. Join the HuffPost community today. (It’s free!)
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up to become a founding member and help shape the next chapter of HuffPost