An advance team from the World Health Organization (WHO) has arrived in China to prepare an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus that causes COVID-19, which is believed to have started in animals before jumping to humans, first emerged in a since-shuttered wholesale market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Two Geneva-based WHO experts, specialists in animal health and epidemiology, will meet their Chinese counterparts in Beijing on Saturday to "develop the scope and terms" of the inquiry, said Tarik Jašarević, a WHO spokesperson.
"The objective is to advance the understanding of animal hosts for COVID-19 and ascertain how the disease jumped between animals and humans," Jašarević told VOA.
“That’s why we’re sending an animal health expert ... to look at whether or not it jumped from species to a human and what species it jumped from,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a Friday press briefing in Geneva.
“We know it’s very, very similar to the virus in the bat, but did it go through an intermediate species? This is a question we all need answered,” she said.
The investigation comes at a politically sensitive time, as the administration of President Donald Trump begins the process of withdrawing the United States from the WHO, a move that could hurt the U.N. agency’s coronavirus pandemic response and reshape public health diplomacy.
Trump has accused the agency of becoming a puppet for China during the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said the WHO "has demonstrated time and time again that it has suffered from deficiencies that don’t permit it to accomplish its fundamental mission set, which is to alert the world and prevent the world from suffering global pandemics."
Both the president and his top diplomat have said the virus may have originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, although they have presented no evidence for this and China strongly denies it.
Scientists and U.S. intelligence agencies have said the virus emerged in nature.
Beijing, which has long accused Washington of smearing China and WHO, took partial credit on Friday for getting the virus origins probe underway.
“China took the lead in inviting WHO experts to investigate and discuss scientific virus tracing,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Beijing has been criticized internationally for a lack of transparency in its handling of the pandemic and its failures to report the outbreak to WHO officials in a timely fashion.
According to WHO's latest timeline of its response to COVID-19, it was first alerted to the virus by its own office in China, not by the Chinese government.
In the chronology updated on June 30, WHO said its China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from its website on cases of "viral pneumonia" on December 31, 2019. It also indicated that Chinese officials did not provide related information to WHO until January 3.
That chronology appears to corroborate China's account of the early days of the pandemic. A white paper released last month by China's State Council Information Office said China began updating the WHO on a regular basis on January 3.
Under WHO’s long-standing notifications requirements, member states are obligated to immediately inform the global health body of any event that may constitute a public health emergency within 24 hours of having carried out the assessment.
WHO reported Friday that the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide had doubled over the past six weeks. The U.N. agency reported 228,102 new cases, surpassing the previous biggest increase of 212,326 on July 4, with the U.S., Brazil, India and South Africa topping the list. Globally, more than 552,000 deaths and 12.2 million cases have been confirmed.
“A strong focus on community engagement and the basics of testing, tracing, isolating and treating all those that are sick is key to breaking the chains of transmission and suppressing the virus," said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at his regular briefing.
This weekend's meetings are expected to involve negotiations on issues including the composition of a fuller team of investigators.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.