A World Health Organization team has emerged from quarantine in the Chinese city of Wuhan to start field work in a fact-finding mission on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key points:China strongly opposed an independent investigation it could not fully controlA major question was where the Chinese side would allow the researchers to go The mission had only came about after considerable wrangling between both sides

The researchers, who were required to complete 14 days in quarantine after arriving in China, could be seen leaving their hotel and boarding a bus on Thursday afternoon.

The details on the trip including where the team will be heading has not been made clear.

Most experts believe it came from bats, possibly in south-west China or neighbouring areas of South-East Asia, before being passed to another animal and then to humans.

The origins search will try to determine where and exactly how that happened.

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 28 with our coronavirus blog.Why is the investigative team in China?

Scientists hope that information on the earliest known cases of the new coronavirus — which was first identified in Wuhan — will help them better understand where it came from and prevent similar pandemics in the future.

Researchers around the world are eager for access to samples taken from the Huanan Seafood Market, which had an early outbreak, and Wuhan hospital records.

The team may visit the market itself as well as the locations of other early cases.

It could also go to a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was built after the 2003 SARS pandemic and maintains an extensive archive of genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses.

Members of the WHO team arrived in Wuhan on January 14, before heading into two weeks hotel quarantine.(AP: Ng Han Guan)

US officials in the previous Trump administration suggested without offering evidence that the virus could have escaped from the institute.

Experts say it’s unlikely that the new coronavirus emerged from the lab in Wuhan and overwhelmingly say analysis of the new coronavirus’ genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans.

The researchers might also visit the hospitals that were overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic in China and the local branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The seafood market and other places where early cases emerged remain important because the virus is constantly changing, as the new strain found in the United Kingdom shows.

Read more about coronavirus:What do researchers hope to learn? It has been just over a year since Wuhan went into strict lockdown.(AP:P Ng Han Guan)

Wuhan is where COVID-19 cases were first detected, but it is highly possible that the virus came to the industrial city of 11 million people from elsewhere.

Genetic sequencing shows that the coronavirus started in bats and likely jumped to another animal before infecting humans.

The closet known relative of the virus can be found nearly 1,600 kilometres southwest of Wuhan, near China’s border with Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam — at a site The Associated Press was blocked from visiting.

People began falling ill in Wuhan in December 2019, and many had links to the seafood market.

Scientists initially suspected the virus came from wild animals sold at the market, prompting China to crackdown on the wildlife trade.

But the subsequent discovery of earlier cases challenged that theory.

China’s CDC said that samples taken from the market indicate it was likely a place where the virus spread, not where it started.

The WHO team’s ability to further our understanding of the virus — and its credibility — could hinge in part on getting access to those samples.

Studying the genes of the earliest known cases in Wuhan could provide clues to how it got from bats to people and whether it was through a mammal such as a bamboo rat or a civet.

Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreakWhat obstacles do the team face?

The big question is what China will allow the researchers see and do?

The ruling Communist Party is concerned the research could shed light on its handling of the virus that could open it up to international criticism — and even demands for financial compensation if it is found to have been negligent.

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China has stifled independent reports about the outbreak at home and published little information on its research into the origins of the virus.

An AP investigation found that the Government has strictly controlled all COVID-19-related research and forbids researchers from speaking to the media.

Another AP investigation found WHO officials privately complained that China had dragged its feet on sharing critical information about the outbreak, including the new virus’s genetic sequence, even as the UN health agency publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response.

China, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, has suggested the virus could have come from abroad.

A Government spokesperson has said the origins hunt will require work beyond China’s borders, including in bat habitats in neighbouring Southeast Asia.

An expert on the WHO team has suggested the same thing, and this is a possibility researchers are exploring.

Why has there been controversy over this investigation?

The mission had become politically charged, as China sought to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.

China, which had strongly opposed an independent investigation it could not fully control, said the matter was complicated and that Chinese medical staff were preoccupied with new virus clusters in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.

Overall, though, China staunchly defended its response, possibly out of concern over the reputational or even financial costs.

“The WHO and global experts have given their full affirmation of China’s epidemic prevention success and past origins tracing work,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

“Both sides have a basic consensus on cooperation on origins-related research, and related work is progressing smoothly.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has defended his country’s initial response to COVID-19.(AP)

Chinese officials and state media have tried to cast doubt on whether the virus even started in China.

However international pressure from several countries, including Australia, lobbied for the WHO to be allowed to investigate in China.

When will we know the answers?

The search for the origins of COVID-19 is likely to take years.

It took more than a decade to find the origins of SARS, and the origins of Ebola, first identified in the 1970s, remain elusive.

But knowing where the virus came from could help prevent future outbreaks of viruses from wild animals.

What you need to know about coronavirus:

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