A team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) investigating the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak have visited a wholesale market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first cluster of cases were identified.
On Sunday, the WHO team arrived at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market amid tight security, as part of its fieldwork in a highly anticipated mission to find out how the virus jumped from animal to human.
Additional barricades were set up outside a high blue fence surrounding the market-- which has been sealed since January last year. Reporters gathered at the entrance as the team’s convoy drove into the market, with guards blocking others from entering.
The experts did not take questions from journalists.
Earlier in the day, WHO experts also visited another site in Wuhan, the massive Baishazhou wholesale market, where business plunged after the outbreak.
“Very important site visits today – a wholesale market first and Huanan Seafood Market just now,” Peter Daszak, a zoologist with the US group EcoHealth Alliance and a member of the WHO team, said in a post on Twitter following the market tours.
He further said the visits were "critical" to understanding the factors involved in the emergence of the virus, adding that speaking to staff at both markets was "very informative.”
“Very informative and critical for our joint teams to understand the epidemiology of COVID as it started to spread at the end of 2019,” he said.
This is while WHO officials have already played down expectations of finding the source of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, a contagious respiratory disease, which has killed over two million people worldwide and devastated the global economy.
The UN agency has also said team members would be limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts and would not have any contact with community members because of health restrictions.
No full itinerary for the team’s two weeks of fieldwork has been announced, and journalists covering the tightly controlled visit have been kept at a distance from team members.
The team members have visited hospitals and markets since finishing their 14-day quarantine on Thursday.
Earlier this week, state media outlet Global Times published a report downplaying the importance of Huanan as an early epicenter of the virus, claiming "subsequent investigations" have suggested the market was not the source of the outbreak.
On Sunday, it argued that "the possibility that the coronavirus was passed on from cold-chain products into Wuhan, or more specifically, to the Huanan wet market... cannot be ruled out."
The new coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a wholesale market in Wuhan in December 2019 after jumping the species barrier from the animal kingdom to infect humans.
Since the outbreak of the epidemic, the origin of the novel coronavirus has been widely discussed online, and conspiracy theories around it have also emerged endlessly.
Previous scientific studies have already suggested that the virus which causes COVID-19 originated through natural processes.
Beijing and Washington have time and again clashed over the virus spread and its origin, further increasing tensions between the world's two largest economies.
Former US President Donald Trump kept referring to the novel coronavirus as the Chinese virus and Beijing hit back by suggesting that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan and initiated the outbreak.
Trump also claimed that there was evidence Beijing created the new coronavirus in a medical lab in the Chinese city. This is while the US intelligence agencies said they have seen no evidence to show the virus is “man-made.”
Washington has on several occasions also accused China of not being transparent and honest about the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
China has fiercely defended its handling of the new coronavirus, repeatedly saying it “has been nothing but open, transparent and responsible” in informing the WHO and affected countries about the pandemic.