A World Health Organization team has emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan to start field work in a fact-finding mission on the origins of the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
The researchers, who were required to complete 14 days in quarantine after arriving in China, could be seen leaving their hotel and boarding a bus on Thursday afternoon. It was not immediately clear where they were headed.
The mission has become politically charged as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. A major question is where the Chinese side will allow the researchers to go and to whom they will be able to talk.
The mission only came about after considerable wrangling between the sides that led to a rare complaint from the WHO that China was taking too long to make final arrangements.
China, which has strongly opposed an independent investigation it could not fully control, said the matter was complicated and that Chinese medical staff were preoccupied with new virus clusters in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.
While the WHO was criticised early on, especially by the US under Donald Trump, for not being critical enough of the Chinese response, it recently accused China and other countries of moving too slowly at the start of the outbreak, drawing a rare admission from the Chinese side that it could have done better.
Overall, though, China has staunchly defended its response, possibly out of concern over the reputational or even financial costs.
On Wednesday president Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the US wanted a “robust and clear” international investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China. Speaking to reporters, she said it was “imperative we get to the bottom” of how the virus appeared and spread. She highlighted “great concern” over “misinformation” from “some sources in China”.
The coronavirus has killed more than two million people and infected at least 100 million since first being detected about a year ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Scientists agree that the disease has an animal origin and particular focus is on the Wuhan “wet market”, which sells live animals.
Beijing has said that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated. China denies as conspiracy theories the idea that it originated in a lab, something Trump touted while in office. Beijing countered by suggesting a supposed link to a US biological weapons lab in Maryland.
Psaki said the new Biden government was devoting significant resources of its own to understanding what happened and would not take the WHO report for granted. Washington will “draw on information collected and analysed by our intelligence community” and also work with allies to evaluate the “credibility” of the international report.
She added that the Biden administration intended to boost its staffing in Beijing, something that “fell back in the last administration”.
The Associated Press and AFP contributed to this report