The Chinese city of Wuhan is where Covid-19 was first detected, but there are fears that Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries. The global team’s visit was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of delays and diplomatic wrangling.
The delays prompted a rare admonishment by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said he was “very disappointed” and that the visit was a “priority for WHO and the international team”.
China has recently seen a new surge in coronavirus cases and recorded its first Covid-related death in months on Thursday, raising the death toll to 4,635. It recorded 87,844 positive cases of Covid-19 since the start of the outbreak.
While its relatively low case figures have been viewed as a testimony to the effectiveness of strict lockdowns, vigorous tracing and quarantine measures, they have also raised questions about the government’s iron grip on information surrounding the pandemic.
The first cases of Covid-19 were linked to a wet market in Wuhan, leading scientists to suspect that the virus jumped to humans from animals, most likely in China’s southwest. The ruling Communist Party has claimed the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but scientists have rejected that.
The 10-person team – comprised of experts from the US, Australia, Germany, Japan, the UK, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam – arrived at Wuhan airport on Thursday, wearing face masks, and were greeted by airport staff in full personal protective gear, including masks, goggles, and full body suits.
They will immediately be put under a two-week quarantine, and receive a throat swab test and antibody test for Covid-19, reported the state broadcaster’s English-language channel, CGTN.
A government spokesperson said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication about whether the team would be allowed to gather evidence.
China previously rejected demands for an independent international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, claiming that the demands were politically motivated and would distract the country from fighting the pandemic.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticised China for its handling of the outbreak, accusing if of not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus, and an EU report accused China of trying to deflect blame and spreading disinformation about where Covid-19 originated.
Beijing has tried to stir confusion about where Covid-19 came from, promoting theories that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood. It also cracked down on reporting of the pandemic in its early days, and was accused of muzzling whistleblowers for trying to raise the alarm.
In December, Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who reported on the pandemic from Wuhan, was charged with disseminating false information and sentenced to four years in jail for “maliciously speculating on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic”.