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WHO Team Investigating Coronavirus Origin Begins Work

Workers wave to the team of experts from the World Health Organization who ended their quarantine and prepare to leave the quarantine hotel by bus in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

World Health Organization investigators exited a two-week quarantine Thursday in Wuhan, China, to begin their work in search of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The international team boarded a bus after exiting their hotel in the afternoon.

China, which for months rejected calls for an international probe, has pledged adequate access for the researchers. The team is expected to spend several weeks interviewing people from research institutes, hospitals and a market linked to many of the first cases.

The WHO has said the purpose of the mission is not to assign blame for the pandemic but to figure out how it started in order to better prevent and combat future outbreaks of disease.

“We are looking for the answers here that may save us in the future, not culprits and not people to blame,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said earlier this month.

The novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread across the world, infecting more than 100 million people and killing about 2.1 million.

More than 120 countries have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, with many governments accusing China of not doing enough to contain its spread.

"It's imperative that we get to the bottom of the early days of the pandemic in China, and we've been supportive of an international investigation that we feel should be robust and clear," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

There continue to be concerns in many countries about access to and supplies of the vaccines that have been developed to protect people from COVID-19.

Japan’s top government spokesperson said Thursday that AstraZeneca will make more than 90 million doses of its vaccine in Japan.

"We believe it is very important to be able to produce the vaccines domestically," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters.

Like many countries already carrying out vaccination campaigns, Japan plans to prioritize front-line medical workers when it begins administering the shots in late February.

Japan has arranged to buy 120 million doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. The vaccine requires a two-shot regiment for each person.

The European Union and AstraZeneca have clashed this week after the company said it would have to cut planned deliveries to the EU due to production delays.

EU officials are demanding the doses be delivered on time and have threatened to put export controls on vaccines made in EU territory.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that EU President Ursula von der Leyen assured him any EU actions would not affect shipments to Canada.

Another source of widespread concern is a number of variants of the virus that have been discovered.

Colombia says it will ban flights from Brazil starting Friday because of a variant circulating there.

Colombian President Ivan Duque said the measure would be in place for 30 days. Anyone who recently arrived in Colombia from Brazil is also being required to quarantine for two weeks.