“So proud to graduate from our 14 days ‘isolation quarantine’ — no one went stir crazy & we’ve been v productive!” another team member, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, added in his own message.
The WHO-led investigation of the virus’s origins in China, mooted since the earliest days of the pandemic, had already been long-delayed amid disagreements about the nature of the inquiry.
Geopolitical rivalry complicated the matter further, as U.S. officials in the Trump administration suggested repeatedly that the virus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, while Chinese officials claimed that the virus may not have originated in China at all.
In early January, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a rare public criticism of China, accusing the country of holding up the process.
“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” Tedros said at a news conference in Geneva on Jan. 5, adding that he was “very disappointed.”
The WHO team arrived in China less than two weeks later, on Jan. 14, but was immediately restricted to a hotel in Wuhan under China’s mandatory 14-day quarantine required for all arrivals.
Even now, after two weeks in isolation, the team is not fully clear of restrictions: Under Beijing’s recently announced “14+7+7″ policy, team members will be required to continue with health checks and avoid gatherings for another two weeks.
An Associated Press reporter who saw the WHO-backed team members leave their hotel Monday noted that although they wore only masks, the Chinese driver of their bus was in a full-body protective suit.
The team left the quarantine hotel to move to a different hotel in a more impressive setting. “Finally free to walk along the lakeside at our hotel on a beautiful sunny day in Wuhan,” Daszak wrote on Twitter.
Some members of the team Thursday said it was a relief to finally escape the quarantine, which had left them confined to their hotel with windows sealed and unable to meet with one another in person.
“The only thing I could see for 14 days from the hotel room has been concrete,” Thea Fischer, a Danish member of the team, told Reuters in a phone interview, adding that arriving in the new hotel was like “one has landed from the moon.”
“I lived opposite two of the others in the team, so it was my hope that every time they knocked on the door, that the other two also went out and had their temperature measured, so you could at least exchange a few words and see a human being,” Fischer added.
“But we were always asked kindly but firmly, like some naughty children, to go back to our rooms.”
While the team members were confined to their rooms, they said that they were able to be productive. Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food safety expert and head of the mission, tweeted that there had been as many as 13 hours of meetings every day and “no time for books, movies or the like. A bit of exercise early morning in the room or during some of the online meetings.”
Daszak tweeted an image of a yoga mat and weights on the floor of his room, noting that his “office” and “gym” had been the same space, but adding praise for the hotel.
“Surprisingly easy to do 14 days in quarantine, the high workload meant days have sailed by & this is a v nice hotel,” the British zoologist wrote.
The real work will now begin. Public health experts say that understanding the spread of the virus, which is thought to have originated in bats and probably spread to humans by an unknown animal, is vitally important for preventing the spread of deadly zoonotic diseases in the future.
In an interview with The Washington Post this year, Ben Embarek said that “everything was on the table,” including theories about lab leaks and spread from outside China, but he emphasized that the “least surprising” result would be that the virus had leaped from animals to humans.
One area of early focus is expected to be the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan, which many of the first cases of the virus were linked to more than a year ago.
Some virologists and public health experts have expressed skepticism that the team will be able to get adequate access for their investigation and suggested that pressure from Beijing could influence the team.
In a briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said what she called the “misinformation” coming out of China was of “great concern to us.”
“It’s imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we’ve been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear,” she said.
But Tedros, despite his previous criticism of Chinese authorities, suggested that there had been progress in discussions with Chinese officials in a message on Thursday. “Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the #COVID19 virus origins mission,” the WHO chief tweeted.
“I asked that the international scientists get the support, access & data needed, and the chance to engage fully with their Chinese counterparts.”
Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.