WHO team visits Wuhan food market as part of Covid investigation

A worker in protective overall disinfects a vehicle from the World Health Organisation convoy while they were visiting the Baishazhou wholesale market Credit: AP

A World Health Organisation (WHO) team looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic have visited a market known to be the food distribution centre for the Chinese city of Wuhan during its lockdown.

The team members were seen walking through sections of the Baishazhou market – one of the largest wet markets in Wuhan – surrounded by a large entourage of Chinese officials and representatives.

The members, with expertise in veterinarian, virology, food safety and epidemiology, have so far visited two hospitals at the centre of the early outbreak: Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital and the Hubei Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine Hospital.

On Saturday, they also visited a museum exhibition dedicated to the early history of Covid-19.

Security personnel use barriers to block the way after the World Health Organization team arrive at the Baishazhou wholesale market. Credit: AP

The WHO said on Twitter the team planned 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 as places they intended to visit.

The mission has become politically charged, as China seeks to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.

A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the origins of the virus.

Peter Ben Embarek of the WHO team passes by a Chinese police officer as he leaves in a convoy from the Baishazhou wholesale market. Credit: AP

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.

A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.