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China sees first COVID-19 death in months as WHO team arrives

China sees first COVID-19 death in months as WHO team arrives
Amid a surge in coronavirus cases, China on Thursday reported its first coronavirus death since May. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 14 (UPI) -- China reported its first COVID-19 death in eight months on Thursday as a team from the World Health Organization arrived in the Asian nation to investigate the virus' origins.

China, the original epicenter of the virus, hasn't altered its coronavirus death toll since May 17 when it increased it by one to 4,634 lives lost following the verification of a death in northeastern Jilin province.

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On Thursday, the nation's death toll climbed to 4,635 after China's National Health Commission said a death occurred a day prior in northern Hebei province where health officials have locked down the three cities of Langfang, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai, affecting millions in an effort to stamp out the virus' spread.

Chinese health officials also reported 138 COVID-19 infections diagnosed in the past 24 hours, 81 of which were in Hebei province where 478 cases have been recorded this year with all but seven being the product of local transmission, according to Chinese health data.

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The 138 cases is also the highest number of cases China has seen in a 24-hour period since March, lifting its total to 87,844 infections on Thursday as a 10-member team from the World Health Organization landed in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, The New York Times reported.

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The first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Wuhan in December of 2019 and countries have since been trying to gain access to the city from Chinese officials to investigate the virus' origins but have failed to gain entrance until now.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told reporters earlier this week that the WHO team was to land Thursday and "conduct scientific cooperation in origin-tracing with Chinese authorities."

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Monday that the team will work to identify the source of the early cases, which will become the basis for further studies into the disease.

"This is important not just for COVID-19 but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential," he said.

Asked if they will send teams to other countries, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, replied all research starts with Wuhan.

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"The studies being in Wuhan. They being where the first initial patients were identified and then there will be many more studies that will follow from there," she said, adding, "the studies that are commencing in Wuhan, that have been ongoing in Wuhan, especially looking at those initial patients that were first identified in December, are really, really critical to help us better understand the beginning of this pandemic."

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The team's arrival in China comes months after WHO approved a resolution led by the European Union and Australia in May to launch an independent probe of the virus' origins, despite pushback from Chinese officials.

The WHO announced the team last month following months of negations with China, and members were en route to Wuhan last week when they were rerouted after WHO was informed they had yet to gain permission to enter the Asian nation.

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Tedros told reporters last week he was "very disappointed" his team wasn't allowed to enter China.

The United States has often criticized China amid the pandemic, accusing it of attempting to cover up the virus' initial outbreak, and also of the WHO, accusing it of aiding the Asian nation in doing so.

In July, President Donald Trump announced that the United States, the WHO's most important donor, would be withdrawing from the United Nations' healthy body.

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