WHO investigators survey Wuhan virology laboratory

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The World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus visited a laboratory in Wuhan that has become a focal point for theories suggesting that a leak was responsible for the pandemic.

The heavily guarded team of experts were escorted from the cordoned off wing of their hotel at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday by a delegation including plainclothes security services as well as foreign ministry staff.

Peter Daszak, team member and head of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-governmental organization, told reporters that WHO experts “ask all the questions that need to be asked.”

The team epidemiologists, zoologists, virologists and public health experts have been tasked with resolving the politically charged question of how Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, infected humans for the first time.

Many Chinese critics, such as Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State, have argued that the Wuhan outbreak may have resulted from an accidental leak during experiments on bat coronaviruses at the Institute of Wuhan virology. The institute and Beijing fiercely denied this allegation.

Besides the evidence for a genetically similar strain of coronavirus in bats, many questions about how the virus first started infecting humans remain unanswered. This includes whether an intermediate host species was involved.

Since the 14-day quarantine at a Wuhan hotel last Thursday, the team has also visited the Huanan seafood market connected to the first known cluster of infections, as well as hospitals that have treated early cases, an animal disease research center and the provincial center. for disease control.

Critics have raised concerns that the long delay before the WHO has access to these sites will make it difficult to uncover conclusive evidence during the two-week field visits.

For example, local authorities dismantled and rehabilitated Huanan Market early last year. A team visit to a propaganda exhibition Bragging about Wuhan’s response to the outbreak also raised concerns that the team was being excessively deferential in Beijing.

CGTN, the international arm of the Chinese state broadcaster, has dismissed accusations that the investigation was being conducted in stages. He said the destinations on the route had been requested by the WHO and the lack of media access during the tours was aimed at avoiding “distractions.”

But a state media worker told the Financial Times that editors told reporters not to interview WHO experts without approval from China’s Foreign Ministry.

WHO has stressed that the main purpose of the investigation is to collect information to prevent outbreaks. Yet investigators are also faced with the difficult task of sorting fact from fiction among a range of original theories.

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Chinese officials are promoting the idea that the Wuhan outbreak was caused by the virus introduced into the city on frozen foods or on their packaging. International virologists believe it is unlikely.

The Biden administration has avoided criticizing the WHO or endorsing any particular theory of origin, but called last week for a “solid and clear” investigation.

Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, told MSNBC that China “fell far short of the mark” in providing access to international experts. “This lack of transparency, this lack of availability, is a deep problem and it is a problem that persists,” he said.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Wuhan

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