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Museum visits early priority for WHO Covid team in Wuhan

WHO inspectors laughing stock for being led on tour of museums on 2nd day of Covid investigations in Wuhan

Statues with masks placed on them seen in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

Statues with masks placed on them seen in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The team dispatched by the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus has drawn mockery from some scientists after they spent a significant part of the second day of their inquest in Wuhan touring "museums."

It took over a year for China to allow the team to venture to Wuhan, a period during which vital evidence could have been lost or removed. Controversially, British zoologist and EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak was included among the team of experts, despite the fact that his organization has received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has funneled the money into the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) since 2014 to carry out research on bat coronaviruses.

In July of last year, when WHO officials were allowed to enter China to lay the groundwork for an investigative trip, Chinese officials refused to let them visit Wuhan. China also imposed a 14-day quarantine on them, forcing the officials to do much of their work remotely.

When China appeared to finally be allowing the team to visit Wuhan in early January, the country suddenly denied them visas at the last minute, prompting rare criticism from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said he was "very disappointed by the delays." Beijing has also insisted that Chinese scientists oversee key elements of the inquest.

Beijing is also limiting access to important research and data, such as the full database at the WIV and its extensive archive of records. Just as it appeared that the team would finally be able to enter China, having submitted the negative results of nucleic acid and antibody tests certified by the WHO, two members were barred from entry at the last minute for testing positive for antibodies.

Although the remaining scientists tested negative for both COVID-19 and antibodies to the virus, China still imposed a 14-day quarantine, which finally ended on Thursday (Jan. 28). Neither the Chinese government nor the WHO has publicly announced the itinerary of the scientists during their visit to Wuhan.

On Friday (Jan. 29), the first full day of the visit, the team had its first face-to-face meeting with Chinese scientists and then visited the Hubei Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Hospital, an early site of the outbreak and nine kilometers from the WIV, where gain of function experiments with bat coronaviruses were being carried out on humanized mice.

On Saturday (Jan. 30), the investigators visited the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital, another location where the new pneumonia-causing virus was being detected at the start of the outbreak. This facility is approximately 20 km from the WIV.

According to China's state-run media outlet the Global Times, the team was slated to "visit museums" before having more discussions later that night. The state-operated tabloid failed to mention the names of the museums, but AP reported that one of the sites included a "museum exhibition dedicated to the early history of COVID-19."

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and among those who have openly criticized Daszak's inclusion in the mission due to his conflict of interest, tweeted a mock itinerary of the scientists' first two days in Wuhan. He joked that their first day would include trips to a jade museum and a stroll along East Lake, while the second day would consist of tours of temples and scenic spots.

Physicist and scientific advisor Albert B Andrews quipped that the fact that the group had not been taken on a trip to the Great Wall was a sign "they are not welcome." A geologist who goes by the Twitter handle Gatteo Taiwan asked if the team members would have a chance to sing karaoke with hostesses, while a researcher who goes by the pseudonym Billy Bostickson suggested the exhibit include "a waxwork model of a webpage scrubber."