WHO Experts Visit Wuhan Lab at Center of Virus Conspiracy Theory
People wearing protective masks walk past posters displaying slogans about coronavirus prevention in Wuhan, China. (Photographer: Yan Cong/Bloomberg)

WHO Experts Visit Wuhan Lab at Center of Virus Conspiracy Theory

A World Health Organization scientific team in China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus visited the Wuhan laboratory that’s been at the center of months of speculation over how the disease jumped to humans.

The international group of scientists arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to a high-tech laboratory that studies some of the world’s most infectious diseases, on Wednesday morning.

The team is “looking forward to a very productive day and to asking all the questions that we know need to be asked,” Peter Daszak, a New York-based zoologist who is part of both the WHO and The Lancet teams trying to trace the virus’s origin, told reporters, Agence France-Presse reported.

WHO Experts Visit Wuhan Lab at Center of Virus Conspiracy Theory

In the past week, the experts have also visited the Huanan seafood market where the first infections emerged, two major Wuhan hospitals that treated patients when it was unknown what they were afflicted with, and an animal disease center.

The highly anticipated visit to the lab, which former U.S. President Donald Trump claimed -- without evidence -- leaked the coronavirus, comes after months of negotiation with a defensive China to facilitate and cooperate with the WHO investigation. Stung by criticism that it initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn’t start in China, but was brought in.

The Wuhan lab has been the target of frenzied speculation since the crisis emerged a year ago, 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 with proof.

China has denied any link and the topic is politically taboo locally. Shi Zhengli -- a researcher at the institute known as “Bat Woman” for her expeditions to bat caves -- said in interviews that SARS-CoV-2’s genetic sequencing does not match any that the lab had previously studied and that none of its staffers were infected.

The WHO expert team will also meet with Shi during their Wednesday visit, reported Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times.

How the pathogen that’s killed over 2 million people globally first leaped to humans is still a stubborn mystery scientists are trying to solve. Some say the virus could have somehow moved directly from bats to people, while others flag the possibility an intermediary animal may have been involved.

After a spate of cases in Chinese port and cold storage workers, China is pushing the possibility that the coronavirus could have entered the country on imported frozen food. State-backed media have also seized on research that suggests there were infections in the U.S. and Italy that pre-date those in Wuhan.

“We hope the U.S. will have an active, scientific, and cooperative attitude in sourcing the virus origins, just like China, and invite the WHO experts for an investigation in the U.S.,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a routine press briefing on Tuesday.

The WHO mission is proceeding “very well,” Daszak told reporters on Tuesday. The team’s investigation in Wuhan is scheduled to last for two weeks, after the experts spent 14 days in quarantine since arriving in China last month.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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