Members of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic visited another Wuhan hospital that had treated early COVID-19 patients on their second full day of work on Saturday.
Jinyantan Hospital was one of the city's first to deal with patients in early 2020 suffering from a then-unknown virus and is a key part of the epidemiological history of the disease.
The team's first face-to-face meetings with Chinese scientists took place on Friday, before the experts who specialize in animal health, virology, food safety and epidemiology visited another early site of the outbreak, the Hubei Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Hospital.
“First face to face meeting with our colleagues. Correction: facemask to facemask given the medical restrictions," Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans tweeted in the morning.
First face to face meeting with our colleagues. Correction: facemask to facemask given the medical restrictions. Discussing our visiting program. China teamleader prof Wannian joking about some technical glitches. Nice to see our colleagues after lengthy zoom meetings.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) January 29, 2021
She said they were discussing their programme of visits and Chinese team leader “prof. Wannian" was joking about some technical glitches, an apparent reference to top Chinese epidemiologist Liang Wannian, who has been a leader of China's response team.
“Nice to see our colleagues after lengthy Zoom meetings,” Koopman tweeted. The visiting researchers held video meetings during 14 days of quarantine after their arrival in China. They came out of quarantine on Thursday.
Members of the team left the hotel by car, and a short time later entered the gates of the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine. According to China's official account of its response to the initial outbreak, Dr. Zhang Jixian first reported cases of what was then known as “pneumonia of unknown origin" at the hospital on Dec. 27, 2019.
WHO said earlier on Twitter that the team requested “detailed underlying data” and planned to speak with early responders and some of the first COVID-19 patients. It also planned to visit markets such as the Huanan Seafood Market linked to many of the first cases, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and laboratories at facilities such as the Wuhan Center for Disease Control.
All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the #COVID19 virus. The team will have their first face-to-face meeting with Chinese scientists on Friday and then begin field visits in and around Wuhan, #China.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 28, 2021
The team's mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.
“All hypotheses are on the table as the team follows the science in their work to understand the origins of the COVID19 virus,” WHO tweeted.
Confirmation of the origins of the virus is likely to take years. Pinning down an outbreak's animal source typically requires exhaustive research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan. The Chinese government has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of frozen seafood tainted with the virus, a notion roundly rejected by international scientists and agencies.
A possible focus for investigators is the virology institute in the city. One of China's top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
The first clusters of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan in late 2019. China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths, with new cases largely concentrated in its frigid northeast, where local lockdowns and travel restrictions were being imposed to contain the outbreaks.
New cases of local transmission continue to fall, with just 36 announced on Friday, as far fewer Chinese than usual appear willing to travel for Lunar New Year.