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WHO experts head to China for prelude to coronavirus probe

July 10, 2020

The researchers are heading to China in a preliminary phase of the bid to discover which animal the coronavirus came from and how it jumped to humans. They will prepare the groundwork for a later investigation.

A vendor picks chickens for customers at a poultry wholesale market April 19, 2006 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
Image: Getty Images/China Photos

A World Health Organization animal health expert and an epidemiologist are traveling to Chinese capital Beijing to organize an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The experts will work with Chinese scientists to determine the scope and itinerary of the investigation, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a UN briefing in Geneva on Friday.

The virus is thought to have emerged at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

While experts think it jumped the species barrier between humans and wild animals on sale at the market, they do not know for certain.

The WHO was sending the animal health expert "to look at whether or not it jumped from species to a human and what species it jumped from," said Harris.

Read more:  WHO: 'Independent evaluation' of pandemic response will follow

The team of two will also look into whether the virus went through several species before finding its way to humans.

The team will deal with logistical questions ahead of a bigger investigation, such as negotiating the composition of the fuller team and what skills the team would need.

Origins of a global pandemic

Scientists believe the virus may have originated in bats and was transmitted to another mammal such as a civet cat or an armadillo-like pangolin before being passed on to people. 

Allegations have also circulated, including from US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that it might have originated in a nearby chemical weapons laboratory in the area; although no evidence for this assertion has been provided to date.

At the World Health Assembly in May more than 120 nations called for an investigation into the origins of the virus. China had insisted that the WHO lead the investigation and also stipulated it should wait until the pandemic was brought under control. Sending two experts for this advanced "scoping mission," as the WHO calls it, was the compromise ultimately reached.

kmm/msh (Reuters, AP)