Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese biologist, told Reuters that he did not expect any restrictions to the 10-member team’s work in China as they prepared to fly on Thursday from Singapore to Wuhan, where the first human cases were detected in late 2019.
The United States, which has accused China of having hidden the extent of its initial outbreak, and others have called for a transparent WHO-led investigation and criticised the terms under which Chinese experts did the first phase of research.
“My understanding is in fact there is no limit in accessing information we might need for the team,” Hung said, speaking via video-call from a Singapore airport hotel ahead of his early morning flight.
“We will see. We are not in China yet.”
Hung said the team had been having regular virtual meetings with Chinese virus researchers over the last few months ahead of the trip.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said his organisation looked forward to working with China to identify the source of the virus.
He said earlier he was “very disappointed” when WHO experts were denied authorisation to enter earlier this month, forcing two members of the team to turn back. China said there had been a “misunderstanding”.
After a fortnight of serving quarantine in a Wuhan hotel, Hung said the team planned to spend two weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and the seafood market in Wuhan where the new pathogen is believed to have emerged. The team would mainly stay in the central Chinese city, he said.
Hung, who is based in Kenya, said his particular area of expertise, and the reason he was selected for the mission, was food safety risks in wet markets.
China has been pushing a narrative via state media that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, citing the presence of coronavirus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.
The WHO has said it is not looking for “culprits” and is willing to go “anywhere and everywhere” to find out how the virus emerged.
Peter Ben Embarek, WHO’s top expert on animal diseases that cross the species barrier, who went to China on a preliminary mission last July, is leading the delegation.
“What we would like to do with the international team and counterparts in China is to go back in the Wuhan environment, re-interview in-depth the initial cases, try to find other cases that were not detected at that time and try to see if we can push back the history of the first cases,” Ben Embarek said in November.
Hung said he hoped the mission would reveal new details about the origins of a virus which has infected over 91 million and killed nearly 2 million people globally, but cautioned against finding firm answers.
“But, myself, I don’t expect personally after this trip everything will be clear. But that is really a necessary step forward.”