Feb. 18 (UPI) -- A South Korean TV report suggested Tuesday that World Health Organization medical experts in China to investigate the coronavirus outbreak have not been allowed access to Hubei province, the epicenter of the epidemic linked to more than 1,800 deaths and over 73,000 cases.
But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said later Tuesday during a press briefing from Geneva that WHO has had a team on the ground in Wuhan since January. The expanded team of experts who arrived last weekend is scheduled to travel to Guangdong and Zhejiang, as well as the capital Beijing, and may travel to Wuhan and elsewhere, "based on need."
"All options are open," he added.
China's foreign ministry said the international team has been working with Chinese counterparts in Beijing, Guangdong and Szechuan provinces to probe the virus and its ways of transmission.
The ministry did not include Hubei, and did not provide reasons for the omission, South Korean television network JTBC reported Tuesday.
WHO defends tactics
The WHO was recently criticized for its relatively muted response to the outbreak in China, where the central government has been suppressing and censoring information on COVID-19. Key whistle-blowers in China have gone missing since the virus was declared a global emergency.
In Beijing, the government has imposed a 14-day quarantine, reported in state media on Friday, for anyone returning to the city from elsewhere in the country, suggesting it would arrest and jail those who didn't comply.
Sylvie Briand, director of infectious hazards management for WHO, said in Tuesday's briefing that similar containment measures taken in Wuhan likely delayed the spread of the disease to other parts of China by two to three days and slowed the expansion of the outbreak to other countries by at least two weeks.
Mike Ryan, director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said health officials in Wuhan will soon begin "door-to-door surveillance" for COVID-19, which will allow them to get a better handle on the scope of the outbreak and its origins.
Ryans said WHO supports all evidence-based public health measures that respect human rights. In Beijing, a city of 20 million, "There's a lot at stake."
In general, WHO believes the "strategic and tactical approach in China is the correct one," he added.
Link to lab denied
Wuhan, the central Chinese city in Hubei where the outbreak began, is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. On Monday, Wang Yanyi, director of the research center, denied allegations that animals used in lab experiments were resold at Huanan Seafood Market, which Chinese authorities have said is ground zero for COVID-19.
The institute had previously denied the outbreak began among lab technicians, including a woman identified as Huang Yanling. Huang was rumored to be "patient zero" on Chinese social media.
Wang's statement came after messages on Chinese social media claimed the director had been "frequently" reselling lab animals to Huanan market vendors. Chen Quanjiao was the named author of the social media messages, and the posts included photos of Chen, according to NTD Television and other Chinese dissident news services.
Chen is a researcher at the lab. On Tuesday she made a public statement claiming her identity had been stolen. Chen may have been detained, according to Chinese-language news service Sound of Hope.
Social media posts about the institute were scrubbed by Tuesday. Wang Gaofei, chief executive of social media platform Weibo, condemned the posts as "fake news" and said the messages originated from an overseas IP address, according to multiple press reports.