A team of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan today on a politically-charged mission to investigate the origins of the coronavirus – but two scientists were held up in Singapore amid fears that China will try to obstruct the probe to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The 13 scientists, who will be quarantined for two weeks before starting their work, were met by Chinese officials in hazmat suits after arriving from Singapore on their much-delayed trip.
But two others were denied entry after testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies in Singapore – despite the fact that the entire team tested negative for a current infection using the gold-standard PCR test.
Beijing has long resisted pressure for a full investigation and has touted theories that the virus might not have originated in Wuhan, but the WHO team has been allowed in after months of negotiations with Chinese authorities.
While the team will investigate the wet market linked to an early cluster of infections, there are no plans to assess whether the virus was accidentally released from a Wuhan lab as Donald Trump and others have suggested.
China’s Communist rulers have boasted of their success in wrestling infections down to a minimum within the country’s borders, making it the only OECD nation to enjoy economic growth in 2020.
The US has accused China of hiding the extent of its initial outbreak, and criticised the terms under which Chinese experts did the first phase of research.
A Chinese government spokesman said this week that the WHO visitors would ‘exchange views’ with Chinese scientists, but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
It came as China registered its first official virus death since last May, with cases at their highest level since the end of the initial outbreak.
Scientists initially believed the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals in Wuhan, triggering the epidemic that spiralled around the world, wrecked the global economy and killed nearly two million people and counting.
But experts now believe that the market was not been the origin of the disease, but rather the site of a super-spreader event where the outbreak was amplified.
It is widely assumed that the virus originally came from bats, but a suspected third animal that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown.
Stung by allegations that it caused the pandemic, China has promoted theories that the outbreak could have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
Some of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced they had not received valid visas.
The bureaucratic delay ‘raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,’ said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
Today, the team faced further delays after two scientists were held up in Singapore because of their antibody test results.
A positive antibody test suggests that someone has had coronavirus in the past – but the entire 15-person team tested negative for a current infection.
The WHO team have been at pains to cut the political baggage attached to their mission, saying they are not looking for ‘culprits’ and are willing to go ‘anywhere and everywhere’ to find out how the virus emerged.
Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission, said the group would be ‘able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit’.
He warned it ‘could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened’.
‘What we would like to do with the international team and counterparts in China is to go back in the Wuhan environment, re-interview in-depth the initial cases, try to find other cases that were not detected at that time and try to see if we can push back the history of the first cases,’ Ben Embarek said in November.
‘I don’t think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way,’ Embarek added.
‘The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened,’ he said.