The World Health Organization said on Thursday that China had welcomed an international team of investigators to probe the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan. The WHO team is expected to travel to China in the first week of January.

Babatunde Olowokure, the WHO’s regional emergencies director in the Western Pacific, told a news conference that the organisation is in talks with Beijing over where the investigators would travel to within the country.

Olowokure added that there are ongoing discussions with China, and that it is important for WHO to “get an overall picture of how the investigation will go”.

China reported the first case of a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan to the WHO on December 31, 2019. China had then closed a market where the novel coronavirus was believed to have emerged.

A team of 12 to 15 international experts is preparing to go to Wuhan to examine evidence, including human and animal samples collected by Chinese researchers, and to build on their initial studies. The team would leave for a six-week mission after New Year. They will be quarantined upon arrival for at least two weeks, in accordance to China’s coronavirus safety protocols.

Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s top expert in animal diseases, said last month the mission would like to interview market workers about how they were infected with the virus.

“There is nothing to indicate that it would be man-made,” he added.

Chinese state media suggested in the earlier stages of the pandemic that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan in December. A report said the virus was present on imported frozen food and that there are scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe last year.

Some Western countries have voiced concern on the delay of sending international experts to Wuhan. But a Western diplomat said that the mission is on a “good footing” at the moment and that the WHO had to accept China’s terms to secure access.

As of Thursday, global coronavirus infections already surpassed 74 million. More than 1.6 million deaths have been recorded so far. The United States, India and Brazil have the highest number of coronavirus cases.


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