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WHO: China Welcoming COVID-19 Investigators

FILE - A worker in a protective suit is seen at a shuttered seafood market during the early spread of the coronavirus, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 10, 2020.

World Health Organization regional officials said Thursday China will welcome an international team of WHO experts to investigate the origins of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

At a news conference in Manila, WHO Regional Emergencies Director Dr. Babatunde Olowokure told reporters the agency has been in contact with China and is discussing places they will visit.

The WHO announced Wednesday it was sending a team of researchers to China in the first week of January to study what led to the global pandemic that has so far killed more than 1.6 million people out of a total of more than 74.2 million cases.

In an interview with the Associated Press news agency earlier this week, a member of the WHO team traveling to China, German biologist Fabian Leendertz, said the visit will likely start in the city of Wuhan where COVID-19 was first detected late last year. Most researchers believe the infection originated in bats.

China has previously opposed calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the ailment, saying such calls are anti-China, but has been open to a WHO-led investigation.

The United States, which has accused China of having hidden the outbreak's extent, has called for a "transparent" WHO-led probe and criticized its terms, which allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research.

Chinese state media have suggested the coronavirus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, citing its presence on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers claiming it had been circulating in Europe last year.