WUHAN, GENEVA • An international team of scientists led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) arrived yesterday in China's central city of Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus that sparked the pandemic.
The group arrived late in the morning on a budget airline from Singapore and were 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.
Two members of the delegation were denied entry as both of them tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Chinese officials blocked the duo from boarding their plane to Wuhan after they tested positive for the antibodies in blood-based serology tests during transit in Singapore, the report said, citing sources.
"Relevant epidemic prevention control requirements will be strictly enforced," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing, when asked about the report.
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 and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts have done the first phase of research.
Dr 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.
Dr Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese biologist who is part of the team, told Reuters he did not expect any restrictions on the group's work in China, but cautioned that 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, he added.
The team would mainly stay in Wuhan, he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday during a stopover in Singapore.
China has been pushing a narrative via state media that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.
"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, adding that the organisation was willing to go "anywhere and everywhere" to find out how the virus emerged.
Separately, WHO's emergency committee met yesterday, two weeks ahead of schedule, to discuss the new coronavirus variants from South Africa and Britain that have rapidly spread to at least 50 countries and sparked widespread alarm.
The newly identified variants, which appear to be significantly more infectious than the strain that emerged in China in 2019, come as spiking virus numbers force many nations to enforce new lockdowns.
The committee normally gathers every three months, but the WHO said the director-general pulled the meeting forward "to consider issues that need urgent discussion".
"These are the recent variants and considerations on the use (of) vaccination and testing certificates for international travel," the global body said Wednesday.
There are concerns that the new mutations may render certain vaccines less effective, undermining hopes that inoculations offer the best hope of recovery from the pandemic.
The newly discovered variants can be identified only by sequencing their genetic code, an analysis that is not possible everywhere.
A third mutation, originating in the Brazilian Amazon and whose discovery Japan announced on Sunday, is currently being analysed and could impact the immune response, according to the WHO.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE