Coronavirus pandemic origins probed with WHO team finally arriving in Wuhan

The World Health Organization team has arrived in Wuhan (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

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A team of scientists have landed in China to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The international team of scientists, led by the World Health Organization, arrived on Thursday in Wuhan.

They are there to try and work out the origins of the outbreak, which has led to the virus to rip across the globe and kill almost two million people,

The group arrived late in the morning on a budget airline from Singapore and was expected to head into two weeks of quarantine.

They had been set to arrive earlier this month, and China's delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the agency's chief.

The team left the airport terminal through a plastic quarantine tunnel marked "epidemic prevention passage" for international arrivals and boarded a cordoned-off bus that was guarded by half a dozen security staff in full protective gear.

Team members did not speak to reporters, although some waved and took pictures of the media from the bus as it departed.

The team arrived in Wuhan this morning
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)

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The United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of its initial outbreak a year ago, has called for a "transparent" WHO-led investigation.

US officials have criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts have done the first phase of research.

World Health Organisation (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said the team in Wuhan will follow wherever the science leads them.

Asked on Sky News if the team would investigate whether the virus was produced in a laboratory he added: "We will follow wherever science leads us.

"The majority of scientists believe there is a natural origin of the virus, we know that bats are a natural reservoir of other coronaviruses, we really want to go and see and get the data.

"You mentioned the market [Wuhan wet market] but it is possible there are cases of SARS-CoV-2 before the market and the market was just a spreading event.

"What is really important is to be open and to follow the leads from a scientific perspective."

The team is in China to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)

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The team arrived as China battles a resurgence of cases in its northeast after managing for months to nearly stamp out domestic infections.

Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO's top expert on animal diseases that cross to other species, who went to China on a preliminary mission last July, is leading the 10 independent experts, a WHO spokesman said.

Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese biologist who is part of the team, said he did not expect any restrictions on the group's work in China, but cautioned the team might not find clear answers.

After completing quarantine, the team will spend two weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and the seafood market in Wuhan where the new pathogen is believed to have emerged, Hung added.

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
(Image: REUTERS)

Last week, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus said he was "very disappointed" that China had not authorised the team's entry for the long-awaited mission at that point.

"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," Dr Embarek said in November.

China has been pushing a narrative via state media that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan.

The country's officials have cited the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.

Doctors study a lung scan in Wuhan last January
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)

"We are looking for the answers here that may save us in future – not culprits and not people to blame," the WHO's top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, told reporters this week.

He added that the WHO was willing to go "anywhere and everywhere" to find out how the virus emerged.

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Team member Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, said last month it was too soon to say whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus had jumped directly from bats to humans or had an intermediate animal host.

"At this stage what I think we need is a very open mind when trying to step back into the events that led eventually to this pandemic," she told reporters.

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