A team of investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) has visited a virus research laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan seeking clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The expert team that visits the heavily guarded Wuhan Institute of Virology, which conducts research on the world’s most dangerous diseases, will be led by WHO virus expert Peter Ben Embarek. It is one of the most-watched stops on the team’s probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am looking forward to a very productive day, meeting the key people here and asking all the important questions that need to be asked,” team member Peter Daszak, who is the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, said.
The sensitive mission, which China had delayed throughout the first year of the pandemic, aims to explore how the virus jumped from animal to human. But questions remain as to what the experts can hope to find after so much time has passed.
Under the scanner
The institute has been at the centre of a number of conspiracy theories, some promoted by former US president Donald Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo, that claim a laboratory leak caused the city’s first coronavirus outbreak at the end of 2019.
Most scientists reject the hypothesis, but some say it is a possibility as researchers there study highly contagious pathogens, including bat-borne coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19. Members of the Trump administration repeatedly claimed that there was evidence that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from or was deliberately leaked by the lab, though they didn’t back those accusations.
Few experts are of the opinion that COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan and has gone on to kill more than two million people worldwide, originated in bats and could have been transmitted to people via another mammal. But there are no definitive answers so far.
Some scientists have called for China to release details of all coronavirus samples studied at the lab, to see which most closely resembles SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease. China has faced criticism at home and abroad for playing down the initial outbreak and concealing information when it first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019.
The WHO team arrived in Wuhan last month and has already visited a hospital where many of the first victims were treated, and the wet food market where the virus emerged in December 2019.