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WHO assembles team of experts to investigate origin of coronavirus in China

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The search is expected to begin in Wuhan
The search is expected to begin in Wuhan   -   Copyright  Ng Han Guan/AP
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A team of experts are currently preparing to travel to China to investigate the original source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Assembled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the team of 10 expects to start its search next month in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak was first reported.

They will then sift through samples and medical data to try and get closer to pinpointing how and where the virus transmitted from animals to humans for the first time.

Team member Fabian Leendertz, a biologist at Germany's Robert Koch Institute who specialises in emerging diseases, said the four-to-five-week mission was not about assigning blame, but about understanding how to better handle future outbreaks.

He said: "It’s really not about finding a guilty country. It’s about trying to understand what happened and then see if based on those data, we can try to reduce the risk in the future."

Conversation over the origins of the virus have been relatively contentious, having sparked political disputes in a number of countries - most notably between China and US President Donald Trump. It has also led to claims of cover-ups and corruption.

The World Health Organisation, however, has said it believes the virus to be zoonotic, therefore being transmitted to humans from an animal, potentially through an intermediate source.

Leendertz said one of the lines of inquiry for his team would be into the seafood market in Wuhan, which has been repeatedly highlighted during the pandemic as a potential early starting place.

“It may also be that it was just the first mega spreading event or one of the first," he said, adding that the team would "see where [the Wuhan] track leads us, if it's another city or if it stays in Wuhan or where that goes."

The German researcher, who was previously part of a mission to find the original source of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said that while he would love the COVID-19 search to be "an Indiana Jones mission", it was more of "a team effort with Chinese colleagues to help identify the necessary next steps and how to continue."

The search for the new coronavirus is expected to be complex as, unlike Ebola, symptoms of COVID-19 can sometimes share many similarities with other common illnesses.

“The big scope is to try to find out what happened," Leendertz said. “How the virus jumped from which animal to perhaps an intermediate host and then to humans. To reconstruct the scenario.”

“The more you know about why these spill over events happen, the better you can also check if there are countermeasures you can take to prevent such transmissions in the future.”

Leendertz said he had not been told of any restrictions to his work in China but for the standard two-week isolation that all travellers must take. He has also suggested that future missions may be necessary.

"There will be a report from that mission, but I’m pretty sure that [it] will not give the full answer," he said.