WHO team arives in Wuhan as China reports first virus death in months

China had largely brought the virus under control after strict lockdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions, but recent weeks have seen numbers climbing again.
China had largely brought the virus under control after strict lockdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions, but recent weeks have seen numbers climbing again.

BEIJING: A team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan on Thursday to start a highly politicised probe into the origins of the coronavirus, as China reported its first death from Covid-19 in eight months.

The 10 scientists, who must complete a two-week quarantine in Wuhan before starting their work, arrived for their much-delayed mission to examine the orgins of the pandemic.

More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, as Covid-19 numbers climb after several months of the country reporting only a handful of daily cases.

China had largely brought the virus outbreak under control through a series of strict lockdowns and mass testing. But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday — the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Infections are still small compared with many other countries that are seeing record numbers of infections, but Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.

Health authorities gave no details about the latest death except that it occurred in Hebei province, where the government has placed several cities under lockdown.

Authorities last week launched a mass testing drive and closed transport links, schools and shops in Hebei’s capital city Shijiazhuang — the epicentre of the latest outbreak.

Neighbouring Xingtai, home to seven million people, has also been locked down since last Friday, as have the five million people of Langfang city.

As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an “emergency state” on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.

As news of the latest death emerged on Thursday, the hashtag “New virus death in Hebei” quickly ratcheted up 100 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

“I haven’t seen the words ‘virus death’ in so long, it’s a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon,” one user wrote.

No deaths have been reported in mainland China since May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.

Quarantine first

Peter Ben Embarek, team lead for the mission, said the group would start with a two-week quarantine at a hotel due to China’s border requirements.

“And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit,” he said.

He warned it “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened”.

Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.

“I don’t think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way,” Embarek added.

“The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened,” he said.

The long-delayed WHO trip comes more than a year after the pandemic began and has sparked political tensions over allegations that Beijing tried to thwart the project.