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Coronavirus

WHO's COVID team in China to hold virtual meetings in quarantine

Experts investigating pandemic's origin are currently confined to their hotel

Members of the World Health Organisation's investigative team sit on a bus at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on January 14, 2021.   © Reuters

WUHAN, China/SINGAPORE (Reuters) -- A World Health Organization-led team investigating the origins of COVID-19 are to begin virtual meetings with their Chinese hosts from a hotel in China's Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged, on Friday.

Their arrival at the city in central China on Thursday was disrupted by the absence of two members who failed coronovirus antibody tests in Singapore. One of the missing members has since passed a test and their travel to China is being arranged, according to China's foreign ministry.

"Team now undergoing the mandatory 14 days quarantine & being treated very well by our hosts. Work begins today, day 1, in teleconf. mtgs w/ China team," tweeted team member Peter Daszak, a zoologist.

The driveway and parking lot of the boutique hotel where the team are staying was cordoned off with tape on Friday and security personnel stood guard at the entrance.

The team's arrival in Wuhan came as China is on alert over a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in its northeast.

The United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of its initial outbreak a year ago, has called for a "transparent" WHO-led investigation and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts have done the first phase of research.

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian virologist on the team, said he and the other scientists were trying to keep the politics surrounding the trip aside.

"There's always politics with this sort of scenario but one of the things that COVID-19 has shown us is if you have good science, you then inform the politics," he said.

"You want to fill the scientific vacuum with the answers so that people can make more informed and, therefore, presumably more sensible decisions."

Dwyer said the itinerary for the rest of the trip was still to be sorted out but he hoped to visit research institutes, hospitals and the market where the first human cases of the disease were detected in late 2019.

"Getting an understanding of how they (markets) work physically by seeing them is helpful because one's trying to work out how viruses might have come into the market from outside...and spread within the market, or parts of the market, and then spread to the community," he said.

The team are not allowed to mingle while in quarantine, so will be holding all meetings virtually.

"It's in the room for two weeks," said Dwyer. "The rooms are a good size and they've given everyone exercise equipment and meals are delivered," adding he had some weights, a skipping rope and a yoga mat.

One of the two missing members of the team, a UK national, will be allowed to travel to China after re-testing negative in an antibody test, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing in Beijing on Friday. The other member, who is Sudanese, is still testing positive for antibodies, he said.

"We will remain in contact with the WHO on these matters," said Zhao.

The team of 15 had all tested negative for the disease prior to leaving their home countries, and underwent further testing while in transit in Singapore.

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