Wuhan, China — Theof coronavirus experts were released from quarantine to begin their field work in Wuhan, China, on Thursday. After two weeks shut in a hotel, as mandated by China's virus-mitigation rules for all incoming travelers, they will now begin their hunt for the source of COVID-19 in the city where the world's first known cases emerged.
CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio and his team have been traveling to Wuhan to cover the pandemic since it began, and they're back again this week as 13 freed experts from the WHO begin their mission in earnest.
They tweeted photos of their departure, and New York-based epidemiologist Peter Daszak showed off his clearance letter from the Chinese authorities. He told CBS News before his release from the hotel that his focus will be on China's first cases of COVID-19, which stretch back to late 2019, based on current findings and reports.
"What contacts they had, what behaviors they had, and does that lead us into a different geography?," Daszak said, adding that a year after the outbreak began, it's still "unclear if China, the country, is the real source — the original source of the virus."
That stance will probably frustrate the many people around the world who believe COVID-19 did come from China. Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Market is believed by many to be Ground Zero of the pandemic. The WHO team is expected to visit, but the market has been shut down and thoroughly cleaned out since the disease tore across the globe.
Dr. Wang Linfa, an expert in the similar SARS virus, is tracing COVID-19's origin from his lab in Singapore, and he says that even a year later, the market could still offer clues.
"Unless you do [investigations] hours after the incident, whether a day, a week, a year, it makes no difference if the animal is gone, the sample is gone, you just study retrospectively," he tells CBS News.
He says the WHO team may be able to gain insight by looking for specifics, like how the animal cages at the market were arranged and what animals were sold. But he acknowledges that many are skeptical of their mission, which waswithout any clear explanation.
"Basically WHO can't win, right? If the WHO could not get a mission to China, then people would say they're toothless. If they get a mission to China, now they say it's a PR stunt," says Wang.
But polished positive propaganda is something China's Communist party knows and does well. From the release of a patriotic new documentary, "Days and Nights in Wuhan," for the nation to consume, to a massive COVID-themed museum in Wuhan — which first and foremost praises President Xi Jinping.
Critics argue that China can't be trusted to be forthcoming with all the data that they have gathered on the deadly virus, but Daszak, the WHO team member from New York, says the world should be patient, and "let history be the judge."
"I think this will take, you know, a couple of years to really get a perfect understanding of what happened," he tells Inocencio.
Daszak also says he expects the WHO team to visit designated COVID-19 hospitals in the region, and possibly the, which some believe to be the real source of the virus.
But time is already running out. The team members are all on one-month visas, and two weeks were eaten up in quarantine.