World

WHO experts to visit China to trace COVID-19 origins


Lack of authorisation from Beijing had delayed the arrival of the 10-strong team on a long-awaited mission to investigate early infections

Chinese authorities said on Monday a team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) will arrive in China on Thursday on a visit to study the origins of COVID-19.

The trip had been scheduled for last week, but some of the members of the team were at the last minute told the trip would be delayed. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week he was “very disappointed” China had not permitted the trip, in rare criticism of Beijing from the agency.

China’s National Health Commission said the team will arrive on Thursday “to conduct joint research with Chinese scientists on the origin-tracing of the novel coronavirus”.

The WHO Director General welcomed the announcement, saying on Twitter, “We look forward to working closely with our [Chinese] counterparts on this critical mission to identify the virus source and its route of introduction to the human population.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said during the visit, “the international experts will hold exchanges with Chinese scientists and medical experts over scientific cooperation in origin-tracing.”

China’s decision to not permit the trip last week appeared to come at the last minute and catch the WHO by surprise, with some of the experts already having left home and in transit when told the visit would not take place.

Investigations into the origins of the coronavirus have already become politicised. The WHO has been criticised, particularly by the United States, for its response to the pandemic and was described by U.S. President Donald Trump as being “China-centric” and “a puppet of China”.

China’s authorities, for their part, have suggested they will control how much access international scientists will have and that its scientists will have a say in how the investigations go forward.

Scientists in China who have been working on tracing the origins have been told that any studies will have to be vetted by the authorities, while some scientists in China have put forward studies suggesting the virus was circulating in other countries, such as Italy, before it came to China. Chinese officials and State media have in recent months backed a narrative suggesting COVID-19 may have originated elsewhere but was first “detected” in Wuhan.

That is not the consensus of most scientists, and the WHO team is likely to focus on Wuhan in its origin-tracing mission. In November, Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said it would be “highly speculative” for the WHO “to say that the disease did not emerge in China”. “It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Monday China had “maintained close communication and cooperation with WHO on global origin-tracing in an open, transparent and responsible manner.”

“In February and July last year, despite the arduous task of prevention and control, China invited WHO experts in twice,” he said. “Chinese experts and WHO and international experts also held frequent interactions through video-conference and seminars, sharing the outcomes China has achieved and the global progress in origin-tracing in a candid and science-based manner. The two sides also jointly formulated the China part of a global plan for scientific cooperation on origin-tracing.”

“The two sides have reached a basic consensus on origin-tracing, which is a scientific issue that should be jointly studied by scientists all over the world,” said Mr. Zhao. “As new developments emerge, our knowledge of the virus deepens and more early cases are found, it is highly likely that origin-tracing will involve many countries and localities, and WHO will need to pay similar visits to other countries and regions as the need arises.”

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