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WHO team due in Wuhan as China reports first virus death in months

  • Helen Roxburgh

    Agence France-Presse

Beijing   /   Thu, January 14, 2021   /   10:25 am
WHO team due in Wuhan as China reports first virus death in months People line up to get their nucleic acid test in the courtyard of a hospital following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China, January 13, 2021. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A team of experts from the World Health Organization were set to arrive in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday as China reported its first death from Covid-19 in eight months amid a resurgence in virus cases.

More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, as Covid-19 numbers climb after several months of the country reporting only a handful of daily cases.

China had largely brought the virus outbreak under control through a series of strict lockdowns and mass testing. But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday -- the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Infections are still small compared with many other countries that are seeing record numbers of infections, but Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month's Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.

Health authorities gave no details about the latest death except that it occurred in Hebei province, where the government has placed several cities under lockdown. 

Authorities last week launched a mass testing drive and closed transport links, schools and shops in Hebei's capital city Shijiazhuang -- the epicenter of the latest outbreak.

Neighboring Xingtai, home to seven million people, has also been locked down since last Friday, as have the five million people of Langfang city.

As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an "emergency state" on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.

As news of the latest death emerged on Thursday, the hashtag "New virus death in Hebei" quickly ratcheted up 100 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

"I haven't seen the words 'virus death' in so long, it's a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon," one user wrote.

No deaths have been reported in mainland China since May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.

The death comes as China readies for the arrival of an expert team of scientists from the World Health Organization, who will start a politically sensitive investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 10-strong team is expected to arrive Thursday in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in late 2019.

Peter Ben Embarek, team lead for the mission, said the group would start with a two-week quarantine at a hotel due to China's border requirements.

"And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit," he said. 

He warned it "could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened".

Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.

"I don't think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way," Embarek added.

"The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened," he said.

The long-delayed WHO trip comes more than a year after the pandemic began and has sparked political tensions over allegations that Beijing tried to thwart the project.