China Bars Two COVID Investigators As WHO Team Lands in Wuhan

Two World Health Organization delegates tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus have been denied entry to China after failing a health screening.

The two members tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies while in transit in Singapore and were kept behind, but 13 participants of the multinational mission arrived in Wuhan on Thursday. They will observe two weeks of quarantine protocol, the United Nations body confirmed in a tweet.

The WHO team, whose politically sensitive trip has been months in the planning, will undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine and further coronavirus tests, said state broadcaster CCTV while characterizing the visit as a show of the Chinese government's transparency.

The group's arrival comes as Chinese health authorities reported the country's first coronavirus death since May. China's 4,635th fatality was recorded south of Beijing in Hebei province, where officials have ordered a new lockdown affecting more than 20 million residents.

China's 138 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday was its highest tally since the first wave last year.

Two scientists are still in #Singapore completing tests for #COVID19. All team members had multiple negative PCR and antibody tests for COVID-19 in their home countries prior to traveling.

— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2021

The WHO team will hope to scrutinize early coronavirus samples and public health records dating back to last January, when Wuhan and its 11 million inhabitants were placed under strict lockdown for 76 days.

It was unclear how much independence the delegation will be granted as they endeavor to trace the pandemic's origins in the provincial capital of Hubei province, but they are widely expected to visit the Huanan seafood market—pinpointed as the likely starting point of the outbreak that has killed nearly 2 million people worldwide.

The U.N. health body has been lobbying Beijing for access to Wuhan since the start of the outbreak. Team members were already on their way to China last week, but were turned back over an apparent bureaucratic mix-up over visas.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare expression of frustration at Beijing, said he was "very disappointed" by the delays.

Two WHO experts were in China last July, but did not visit Wuhan, which declared "victory" over the coronavirus in late April.

More than a year since the outbreak began, uncertainties surround what the international health experts expect to find in China, despite persistent messaging that origin-tracing could help prevent the next disease.

Analyses of SARS-CoV-2 have suggested possible intermediate animal hosts such as bats and pangolins—just two among the numerous species of wildlife sold at illegal markets in China. However, faced with scrutiny from President Donald Trump and others over its early handling of the outbreak, the Chinese government has also peddled dubious theories about the virus' origins in Europe or the United States.

Beijing found itself embroiled in a diplomat row with Australia after Scott Morrison, the prime minister, called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. The spat has since escalated into a series of punitive trade embargos on Australian goods.

Among the delegates who arrived in Wuhan on Thursday is Peter Daszak, a British zoologist and zoological disease expert.

Daszak previously highlighted China's effective public health measures at the start of the outbreak and, in an op-ed for newspaper The Guardian, dismissed unsubstantiated rumors about the coronavirus' man-made origins in the Wuhan Institute of Virology—a conspiracy theory repeated by others including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Daszak is president of EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO researching infectious diseases that has worked with the Wuhan laboratory in the past.

"Determining the origins and emergence of a pandemic is as messy and complex as studying a plane crash," he wrote. "Just as an air crash investigator pieces together fragments at a crash site, pinpointing the origins of a new virus is painstakingly difficult and time-consuming, and requires logic and reason."

WHO Investigators Reach Wuhan for Origin-tracing
File photo: Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team, including Peter Daszak (C) and Hung Nguyen (L), investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, board a bus following their arrival at a cordoned-off section in the international arrivals area at the airport in Wuhan on January 14, 2021. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images