Thirteen scientists arrived in Wuhan, China, on Thursday, following months of discussions with President Xi Jinping’s government.
The team includes virologists and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
The team will observe a two-week quarantine – per protocols – but team members will start working via video conference with Chinese experts. Two members from the initial team also had to remain in Singapore after testing positive for COVID-19, but they will follow once they test negative.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak first emerged in late 2019. 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 (SARS).
The investigation commences following months of discussions and further bureaucratic hurdles when China announced that some members of the team hadn’t received valid visas.
“The government should be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.
Beijing has long resisted demands for an international investigation, instead pushing fringe theories that the virus entered China from abroad.
When Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origin of the virus, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian goods.
“The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said Wednesday.
Efforts to closely guard information surrounding the virus and its origins may have led to delayed warnings about the pandemic and difficulties establishing early testing capabilities.
A “scientific audit” of Institute records and safety measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said that depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.