World may never find Covid patient zero, says WHO

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A team from the World Health Organisation are attempting to investigate the origins of Covid-19.
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The world may never find 'patient zero' in its search for the origins of Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's (WHO) technical lead on the disease said today.

A WHO-led team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is to hold virtual meetings with its Chinese hosts in Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged more than a year ago.

Their arrival at the city in central China on Thursday was disrupted by the absence of two members who failed Covid-19 antibody tests in Singapore.

One of the missing members has since passed a test and their travel to China is being arranged, according to the country's foreign ministry.

"Team now undergoing the mandatory 14 days quarantine and being treated very well by our hosts. Work begins today, day 1, in [teleconference meetings with] China team," tweeted team member Peter Daszak, a zoologist.

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The driveway and parking lot of the boutique hotel where the team are staying was cordoned off with tape today and security personnel stood guard at the entrance.

The team's arrival in Wuhan came as China is on alert over a resurgence of Covid-19 infections in its northeast.

The United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of its initial outbreak a year ago, has called for a "transparent" WHO-led investigation and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts have done the first phase of research.

Politics aside

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian virologist on the team, said he and the other scientists were trying to keep the politics surrounding the trip aside.

"There's always politics with this sort of scenario but one of the things that Covid-19 has shown us is if you have good science, you then inform the politics," he said.

"You want to fill the scientific vacuum with the answers so that people can make more informed and, therefore, presumably more sensible decisions."

Dwyer said the itinerary for the rest of the trip was still to be sorted out, but he hoped to visit research institutes, hospitals and the market where the first human cases of the disease were detected in late 2019.

"Getting an understanding of how [the markets] work physically by seeing them is helpful because one's trying to work out how viruses might have come into the market from outside and spread within the market, or parts of the market, and then spread to the community," he said.

The team are not allowed to mingle while in quarantine, so will be holding all meetings virtually.

"It's in the room for two weeks," said Dwyer.

"The rooms are a good size and they've given everyone exercise equipment and meals are delivered," adding he had some weights, a skipping rope and a yoga mat.

One of the two missing members of the team, a UK national, will be allowed to travel to China after re-testing negative in an antibody test, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing in Beijing on Friday.

The other member, who is Sudanese, is still testing positive for antibodies, he said.

"We will remain in contact with the WHO on these matters," said Zhao.

The team of 15 had all tested negative for the disease prior to leaving their home countries, and underwent further testing while in transit in Singapore.

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