A global team of researchers arrived on Thursday in the Chinese city where Covid-19 was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into the origins of the pandemic.
Their arrival in Wuhan came amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries and as the country experienced a new surge in coronavirus cases and reported its first Covid-related death in months.
The group sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject this suggestion.
Fifteen team members were due to arrive in Wuhan on Thursday, but two tested positive for coronavirus antibodies before leaving Singapore and were being retested there, WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport.
The researchers, who wore face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full body suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for Covid-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV.
They are to start working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.
The team includes virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus’s spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.
After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth Alliance suggested previously.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus’s origins; pinning down an outbreak’s animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavour that takes years of research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
The Chinese government has tried to create confusion about the virus’s origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.