WUHAN: A team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived in Wuhan on Thursday (Jan 14) to start a probe into the origins of the coronavirus.
The United States, which has accused China of having hidden 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.
The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. It has since billowed out across the world killing nearly 2 million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.
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.
Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese biologist and part of the 10-member team, told Reuters that he did not expect any restrictions on the group's work in China, but cautioned against finding firm answers.
State broadcaster CGTN showed the plane carrying the team arrive from Singapore to be met by Chinese officials in full hazmat suits.
The team will spend two weeks in quarantine on arrival and two more weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and the seafood market in Wuhan where the new pathogen is believed to have emerged, Hung said.
The team would mainly stay in Wuhan, he told Reuters in an interview from Singapore on Wednesday.
Earlier, China denied entry to two members of the team after both 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 people familiar with matter.
"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 trip comes as China reported its first COVID-19 in eight months. A total of 138 new infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday, the highest single-day tally since March last year.
No details about the latest death were given except that it occurred in Hebei province, where the government has placed several cities under lockdown.
As news of the latest death emerged on Thursday, the hashtag "New virus death in Hebei" quickly ratcheted up 100 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
"I haven't seen the words 'virus death' in so long, it's a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon," one user wrote.
Embarek warned it "could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened".
Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.
"I don't think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way," Embarek added.
"The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened," he said.
Last week, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus said he was "very disappointed" that China had still not authorised the team's entry for the long-awaited mission, but on Monday welcomed China's announcement of their planned arrival.
"What we would like to do with the international team and counterparts in China is to go back in the Wuhan environment, re-interview in-depth the initial cases, try to find other cases that were not detected at that time and try to see if we can push back the history of the first cases," Ben Embarek said in November.
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 coronavirus 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 WHO was willing to go "anywhere and everywhere" to find out how the virus emerged.
Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and a member of the WHO-led team, said last month it was too soon to say whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus had jumped directly from bats to humans or had an intermediate animal host.
"At this stage what I think we need is a very open mind when trying to step back into the events that led eventually to this pandemic," she told reporters.