China has announced its first Covid-19 death since May 2020, as a group of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan, the epicentre of the first outbreak, to investigate the origins of the virus.
China has locked down millions of people in the north of the country and declared an emergency to fight a new Covid outbreak that has now claimed its first victim.
Health authorities gave no details about the death, except that it occurred in Hebei province, where the government has placed several cities under lockdown.
Related news | China locks down Hebei region for virus outbreak
China had largely brought the virus outbreak under control through a series of strict confinements and mass testing. But 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday, the highest single-day tally since March 2020.
The death comes as a team of scientists from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected, to conduct an investigation into its origins.
Scientists suspect the virus jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest.
Members under quarantine
The ten members of the team come from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
On Thursday, China blocked two members from boarding their plane to Wuhan after they tested positive for the antibodies in blood tests during transit in Singapore.
Team members will spend two weeks in a quarantine hotel, where they will start working with Chinese experts via video conference.
The politically-sensitive investigation was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling, and there is uncertainty about whether China might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The Chinese government has tried to stir confusion about the virus’s origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
No answers right away
Mission leader Peter Ben Embarek warned, it “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened,” adding that the first mission will unlikely yield much, “but we will be on the way.”
Pinning down the animal origin of a virus outbreak takes years of research, and includes taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of China’s top virus research labs, which built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
According to WHO’s published agenda for the research team, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the lab, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.
Although it may be challenging to find the human Covid virus in animals, discovering closely-related viruses might help explain how the disease first jumped from animals, and it could shine light on preventive measures to avoid future epidemics.