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Covid-19

China to allow WHO experts in, a year after announcing first Covid-19 death

China has imposed emergency measures to combat a virus outrbreak in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. One year after it reported its first Covid-19 death, China managed to get the spread of the illness under control, but recent new outbreaks worry authorities.
China has imposed emergency measures to combat a virus outrbreak in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. One year after it reported its first Covid-19 death, China managed to get the spread of the illness under control, but recent new outbreaks worry authorities. STR CNS/AFP

On 11 January 2020, China announced the first death from the new coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province. A year on, Covid-19 has claimed over 1.9 million lives while new strains of the virus send the infection rate upwards once again. And it's only now that Beijing has allowed World Health Organization experts in to investigate the origins of the virus.

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In a sparse report on 11 January 2020, China confirmed its first death from an unknown virus: a 61-year-old man who was a regular at the now-notorious Wuhan wet market linked to many of the early cases.

According to the statement, the man died on 9 January. China has removed all 11 January statements of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from the internet, but they can still be accessed via the internet archive on the Wayback Machine.

The World Health Organization (WHO) made its first reference to the outbreak on 12 January. A month later, the WHO officially named the virus “Covid-19”.

Little is known about the first official victim of the coronavirus – not even his name – and the market where the first reported clusters of cases were traced back to has remained closed.

China has faced criticism at home and abroad over its initial handling of the virus, including attempts to silence whistleblowers and failure to report cases for days in early January.

But at the weekend, Beijing announced it had finally reached an agreement with the WHO to allow investigators in, under very specific circumstances. 

Duplex, Charles Pellegrin France 24 correspondent, China.
Duplex, Charles Pellegrin France 24 correspondent, China. © France 24

The independent experts are to arrive on Thursday and undergo a 14-day quarantine before they are expected to visit Wuhan.

Disappointment

Negotiations for the visit have dragged on for months. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week expressed disappointment over delays, saying that members of the international scientific team departing from their home countries had already started on their trip as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China had approved the visit following consultations between the sides, hailing the opportunity to “exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on the tracing of the origin of the new coronavirus".

“Along with continuous changes in the epidemic situation, our knowledge of the virus deepens, and more early cases are discovered," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, adding that the search for the origin will likely involve “multiple countries and localities".

Speculation

The origins of the virus have been the source of intense speculation, much of it centred around the likelihood that it was carried by bats and passed to humans through an intermediary species sold as food or medicine in traditional Chinese wet markets. Other theories hold it that the virus was man-made, created in a Chinese laboratory and set free – a suggestion vehemently denied by Beijing.

China has largely stemmed new cases of domestic transmission of Covid-19. But on Monday, officials said scores of people had tested positive in Hebei province, bordering Beijing.

That outbreak comes amid measures to curb the further spread of the virus during next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a massive scale.

China has recorded 87,536 total cases of the virus, including 4,634 deaths. Hospitals are currently treating 673 people for Covid-19, while over 500 are in isolation and under observation after testing positive without showing symptoms, officials said.

(with AP)

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