An international mission led by the World Health Organization will go to China in the first week of January to investigate the origins of the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beijing has been reluctant to agree to an independent inquiry and it has taken many months of negotiations for the WHO to be allowed access to the city.
The United States, which has accused China of having hidden the outbreak’s extent, has called for a “transparent” WHO-led investigation and criticised its terms, which allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research.
China reported the first cases of Covid-19 –then an unknown phenomena- to the WHO on Dec. 31 and closed a market selling animals in Wuhan where the novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged.
Now a team of 12-15 international experts is finally preparing to go to Wuhan to examine evidence, including human and animal samples collected by Chinese researchers, and to build on their initial studies.
A biologist on the team travelling to Wuhan told the Associated Press news agency that the WHO was not seeking to apportion blame, but rather to prevent future outbreaks.
“It’s really not about finding a guilty country,” Fabian Leendertz of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute said.
“It’s about trying to understand what happened and then see if, based on those data, we can try to reduce the risk in the future.”
Thea Fischer, a Danish member, said that the team would leave “just after New Year’s” for a six-week mission, including two weeks of quarantine on arrival.
“Phase 1 was supposed to be completed by now, according to the terms of reference, and we should have some results. If that’s what we get when we come to China…that would be fantastic. Then we are already in phase 2,” she told Reuters.
Chinese state media have suggested the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, citing its presence on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe last year.
But analysts say the reports are without foundation, and the campaign reflects anxiety within the leadership in Beijing about damage to the country’s international reputation from the pandemic.
The search for the source has led to tensions, notably with the US. President Donald Trump’s administration has accused China of trying to conceal the initial outbreak.
Rita Osakwe/Agency Reports