A year after authorities closed Wuhan down, the city has recovered as people attend the New Year countdown. Photo: AFP

A group of internationally renowned virologists and infectious disease professionals sent by the World Health Organization touched down in Wuhan Thursday noon.

But they were not feted with a red carpet reception at the city’s Tianhe Airport. Rather, they were swiftly put in quarantine by local authorities.

This was because the center of the Covid-19 contagion is now on a months-long run with no trace of the virus now that the locus of the pandemic has shifted to the West. 

Beijing made a U-turn earlier this week not only to let in the WHO personnel but also allow them to head for Wuhan directly. The central city now insists it should take no chances and that the panel, which had a transit stop in Singapore, must not be spared the strict quarantine designed to keep out the virus that these scholars have the job of tracing.

It is understood that the ten members will be left cooling their heels in a sealed-off, suburban isolation facility for a fortnight and be repeatedly tested for Covid.

These health specialists from Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Denmark, the Netherlands, Qatar and other places will only be allowed to get out and about after they are given a clean slate. Only after that can they launch their investigation in the ground zero of the virus, almost 13 months after it cropped up. 

A plane believed to be carrying a WHO expert group touched down in Wuhan on Thursday noon. Photo: WeChat via CGTN

Their belated trip to the city, nonetheless, marks the second time that WHO personnel have been on the ground to look for the origin of the disease. The WHO sent its officials and scientists to China in February and July for talks, including a sit-down between WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping in February in Beijing, when its experts flew into Wuhan that was in the grip of the pathogen.

Back then, however, the United Nations body was not granted access to the city’s Huanan Seafood Market, where a pneumonic outbreak erupted in December 2019. 

This time around, notwithstanding the initial delay of the trip due to visa issues that induced rare rebukes from the WHO, Beijing has vowed full cooperation and candid sharing of what the nation knows of the virus.

The state-run Global Times stressed on Thursday that allowing the WHO experts to visit Wuhan for a second time shows China’s goodwill and determination to unravel the myth. 

In the meantime, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has told leaders of Southeast Asian and African countries that Covid could have “multiple sources, versions and variants,” again hitting back at allegations that a cover-up delayed China’s initial response and resulted in a global viral spread.

Chinese media have reported that the WHO team will stay in Wuhan for about a month, and that they will be given carte blanche for their work in the remainder of their stay after the quarantine. 

A sign of the World Health Organization written in Chinese at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva. Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini
A man walks in front of a drawing of President Xi Jinping on a wall at the Leishenshan Hospital that had offered beds for coronavirus patients in Wuhan in April, 2020. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Beijing’s assurance has also been confirmed by one member, Hung Nguyen, a biologist from Vietnam specializing in food market risk management. He told Reuters that he would expect no interference from China when collecting and analyzing information in Wuhan.

Given Nguyen’s research background, it is believed that the team may have a chance of a field survey of the Huanan Market, which has been shut since the initial outbreaks.

However, all booths and corners there were disinfected during Wuhan’s lockdown between February and April. The expert cautioned against finding firm answers from the market. 

The team will still be accompanied by Wuhan officials and experts and those from the National Health Commission in Beijing. Together, they will inspect labs and hospitals in the city and interview people. One condition of the much-anticipated Wuhan outreach is that Chinese experts must conduct solo the first phase of research.

Leading the WHO panel is Peter Ben Embarek, an authority on zoonotic diseases, who visited Beijing in July. He said he still hoped to “find cases in Wuhan not on the radar back then and push back the history of the first cases.”

WHO’s top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, has also promised Beijing that the team will not be looking for culprits or people to blame, and that the WHO is willing to go “anywhere and everywhere” to find out how the virus came into existence. 

Local papers in Wuhan made no mention of the arrival of the WHO experts. Rather, the city’s official Yangtze Daily ran a feature based on a Xinhua circular about preliminary studies by University of Milan researchers suggesting a female Italian had caught the virus as early as in November 2019.

Citing reports in Italy, the paper noted “residual gene” of Covid had been detected in the patient’s dermatological sample collected that month. 

A police officer walks inside the deserted central concourse of Shijiazhuang’s main train sustain. The capital city of Hebei province is in a Wuhan-like lockdown. Photo: China News Service

Other state media outlets and major news portals across China also played down their coverage of the WHO mission, as the resurgence hitting the northern provinces of Hebei and Heilongjiang continues to occupy front pages.

On Wednesday, China logged its biggest daily jump in new infections, to 138, in more than ten months since March. This highlights the growing threat ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday next month.

Among the new cases, 81 were found in Hebei surrounding Beijing and 43 in the northeastern Heilongjiang province. New asymptomatic carriers, which the NHC does not categorize as confirmed cases, rose to 78 from 38 a day earlier.

To arrest the spike in new cases, the NHC and local authorities have put 28 million Chinese under home quarantine, part of a suite of measures unseen since Wuhan ended its lockdown. 

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