On Wednesday, researchers from the World Health Organization visited a research center in the Chinese city of Wuhan, China, which was the target of rumors about the source of the coronavirus, with one participant saying that they planned to meet key employees and press them on critical issues.
The visit of the WHO team to the Wuhan Virology Institute was a highlight of their mission to gather data and search for clues as to where the virus originated and how it spread.
According to footage by Japanese broadcaster TBS, zoologist and team member Peter Daszak said, “We look forward to meeting all the key people here and asking all the important questions that need to be asked.”
Reporters accompanied the team to the high-security facility, but there was no direct access to team members, as with previous trips, who have so far given scant information of their meetings and visits. Uniformed and plain-clothed security guards stood watch along the gated front entrance of the building, but during a visit to an animal disease testing center, there was no sign of the protective suits team members had worn on Tuesday. What protective gear was worn within the institute was not evident.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular briefing that the experts also held talks with Huazhong Agricultural University experts on Wednesday.
“It should be noted that the traceability of viruses is a complex scientific issue, and we need to provide experts with sufficient space to conduct scientific research,” said Wang. “China will continue to work with the WHO in an open, transparent and responsible manner, contributing to the better prevention of future risks and the protection of people’s lives and health in all countries.”
Over the past six days, the WHO team, which includes specialists in veterinary medicine, virology, food protection, and epidemiology from 10 nations, has visited clinics, research institutes, and a conventional wet market connected to several of the first cases after two weeks in quarantine. Their visit followed months of talks as China tries to maintain close control over the outbreak details and the investigation into its sources, in what some have seen as an effort to escape responsibility for any errors in its early response.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of China’s top virus research laboratories, created an archive of genetic information on bat coronaviruses after the Extreme Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. That has led to unproven suspicions that it could have a link in late 2019 with the original outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan.
China has firmly denied this possibility and has also supported unproven hypotheses that the virus could have originated elsewhere or even been introduced from overseas into the country through shipments of frozen seafood infected with the virus, a suggestion that foreign scientists and agencies have roundly dismissed.
Shi Zhengli, a virologist who collaborated with Daszak to track down the sources of SARS that originated in China and contributed to the 2003 outbreak, is the deputy director of the institute.
It is possible that proof of the virus’s source would take years. Usually, pinning down the animal reservoir of an epidemic requires extensive review, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis, and epidemiological studies. One possibility is that the virus may have been transmitted by a wildlife poacher to traders who brought it to Wuhan.
In Wuhan in late 2019, the first COVID-19 clusters were identified, eventually leading the government to place the city of 11 million under a strict 76-day lockdown. Over 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths have been recorded in China since then, with new cases mostly clustered in its northeast and local lockdowns and travel restrictions being placed to control the outbreaks.
With only 15 registered on Wednesday, new cases of local transmission continue to fall as Chinese government attention calls not to travel later this month for the Lunar New Year holiday.