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WHO teams visits Wuhan food market in search of virus clues

Public access to the market – now barricaded with guards on round-the-clock duty – has been severely restricted since it was shut at the beginning of last year. Before its closure, it was a bustling market comprising hundreds of stalls divided into sections for meat, seafood and vegetables.

On December 31, 2019, after four cases of a mystery pneumonia were linked to the market, it was shuttered overnight. By the end of January, Wuhan had gone into a 76-day lockdown.

Experts say the Huanan market still plays a role in tracing the origins of the virus, since the first cluster of cases was identified there.

The Geneva-based WHO said on Twitter last Thursday that the team plans to visit hospitals and markets like the Huanan Seafood Market, which was linked to many of the first cases. They also listed the Wuhan Institute of Virology and laboratories at facilities including the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control.

A worker in protective clothes disinfects a vehicle from the World Health Organisation convoy at the Baishazhou wholesale market in Wuhan.

A worker in protective clothes disinfects a vehicle from the World Health Organisation convoy at the Baishazhou wholesale market in Wuhan.Credit:AP

The WHO-led probe in Wuhan has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

China has sought to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.

A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus’s origins. Pinning down an outbreak’s animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavour that takes years of research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.

One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan. The Chinese government has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of frozen seafood tainted with the virus, a notion roundly rejected by international scientists and agencies.

AP, Reuters

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