Thursday Jan 14 2021

WHO team in Wuhan to probe origins of coronavirus as China reports first death in months

Members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic sit on a bus before leaving Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 14, 2021. Photo: Reuters 
  • Scientists will complete two-week quarantine before starting in Wuhan
  • Peter Ben Embarek warns that it "could be a very long journey"
  • Trip comes as more than 20 million people are under lockdown in north of China and one province has declared an emergency

WUHAN: World Health Organisation's team of experts arrived in Wuhan to investigate the coronavirus from the city where the infection originated from amid reports that China had seen its first COVID-19 death in eight months.

The 10 scientists, who must complete a two-week quarantine in Wuhan before starting their work, arrived for their much-delayed mission to examine the orgins of the pandemic.

The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing nearly two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.

State broadcaster CGTN showed the plane carrying the team arrive from Singapore to be met by Chinese officials in full hazmat suits.

Read more: WHO team to probe COVID-19 origins will arrive in China on Jan 14

Their trip comes as more than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, with COVID-19 numbers climbing after several months of being relatively static.

China had largely brought the pandemic under control through strict lockdowns and mass testing, hailing its economic rebound as an indication of strong leadership by the Communist authorities.

But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday — the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Clusters are still small compared with many countries contending with rampant infections and record numbers of deaths, and the first virus fatality in several months — reported in northern Hebei province — seeded alarm across China.

Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month's Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.

Health authorities gave no details about the latest death except that it occurred in Hebei province, where the government has placed several cities under lockdown.

Read more: The Wuhan lab at the heart of the US-China coronavirus spat

As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an "emergency state" on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.

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.

No deaths have been reported in mainland China since May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.

WHO arrival

The latest death comes as China braces for the scrutiny the arrival of the expert team of WHO scientists will bring.

Peter Ben Embarek, team lead for the mission, said the group would start with a mandatory quarantine at a hotel due to Chinese immigration requirements.

"And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit," he said.

He 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.

Read more: Wuhan bans consumption of wild animals as COVID-19 cases surge

"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.

The long-delayed WHO trip comes more than a year after the pandemic began and has sparked political tensions over allegations that Beijing tried to thwart the project.