WHO forward team leaves Wuhan as COVID-19 probe enters new phase

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GENEVA – The World Health Organization said on Monday that an advanced team tasked with examining the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak has completed its mission in China and that the United Nations health agency is preparing for the deployment a larger group of experts in the area of ​​suspected epidemic.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the “international team” would deploy to Wuhan, the city where the pandemic was said to have broken out late last year. Tedros said the “terms of reference” were drafted by the WHO and China, but he did not elaborate.

“The WHO forward team that visited China has now completed its mission of laying the groundwork for further joint efforts to identify the origins of the virus,” he said at a conference. hurry. “Epidemiological studies will begin in Wuhan to identify the potential source of infection of the first cases.”

He said the “evidence and hypotheses” generated by the work “would lay the groundwork for additional, longer-term studies”.

The comments came amid a growing toll of the pandemic in the United States, Brazil and India, as investigators seek to clarify the origins of the virus and how it may have passed from animals to humans at the end of last year.

Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO emergency chief, noted “gaps in the epidemiological landscape” and said it would be evaluated which studies to conduct and which data to collect. He said the two-person forward team had not returned from China and had not yet been “debriefed.”

“The real trick is to go to the human groups that happened first, and then go back systematically to find the first signal through which the barrier of human animal species was crossed,” Ryan said. “Once you understand where that barrier has been crossed, you move on to studying more systematically on the animal side,”

The WHO press office, contacted by The Associated Press after the press conference, did not provide details of the terms of reference, whether they would be made public, or the size of the international team or when it could be sent to China. .

He said team members had “in-depth discussions” with their Chinese counterparts during the three-week visit and had video-based discussions with virologists and other scientists in Wuhan – including the ‘Wuhan Institute of Virology. In April, US President Donald Trump claimed to have seen evidence supporting the theory that the lab was the source of the virus.

On Sunday, Dr Deborah Birx, the White House’s senior coronavirus adviser, said the virus was “extraordinarily widespread” in the United States and that infections in urban and rural America marked a “new phase” for the pandemic in the country.

Ryan, asked to comment on such remarks, said he didn’t think the intention was “to create a sense of a new phase … but to really remind all states that the disease has never gone away.”

“It is not our job to tell the United States what it should be doing at the subnational level: state-based planning and implementation, guided by national scientists, seems to be (on) the right way, ”added Ryan. “The difficulty for all of us is this: Sometimes we know the right way. The difficulty is choosing to walk on it.

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