The World Health Organization took the rare step of criticizing China on Tuesday, using its first press conference of the new year to express disappointment that Beijing has still not given permission to United Nations investigators to probe the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that several scientists on the U.N. agency’s team researching the pandemic’s source had left their home countries on Monday and Tuesday, after the Chinese government had agreed to allow their entry. But while team members were en route, Tuesday, the WHO was told that Chinese officials had not yet finalized the necessary permissions for their arrival, Dr. Tedros said.
Some members were still waiting for visas, said Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, and at least one member has begun returning home.
China played down World Health Organization (WHO) concern about a delay in authorisation for a visit by team of experts looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, saying arrangements were being worked out.
The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Tuesday he was “very disappointed” that China had not authorised the entry of the team for the investigation, which he said was a WHO priority. “We are eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible,” he said.
The coronavirus disease was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread around the world.
Much remains unknown about its origins and China has been sensitive about any suggestion it could have done more in the early stages of the pandemic to stop it.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, told a regular news briefing in Beijing that the problem was “not just about visas” for the team.
Asked about reports that the dates had been agreed upon, she said there had been a “misunderstanding” and the two sides were still in discussions over the timing and other arrangements and “remain in close communication”.
“There’s no need to overinterpret this,” she said.
China’s experts were also busy dealing with a renewed spurt of coronavirus infections, with many locations entering a “wartime footing” to stop the virus, she said.
The delay by Chinese authorities fuels concern that Beijing is obstructing international efforts to trace the origins of a pandemic that has now killed over 1.8 million people worldwide.
The 10-strong team of international experts had been due to set off in early January as part of a long-awaited mission to investigate early cases of the disease.
China has been seeking to shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began, with senior diplomat Wang Yi saying “more and more studies” showed that it emerged in multiple regions. WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan has previously called this “highly speculative”.
China has also dismissed criticism of its handling of early cases although some including US President Donald Trump have questioned its actions during the outbreak.
The WHO, too, has been criticised for being too deferential to China through the course of the pandemic, and has been blamed by other countries for initially downplaying the severity of the crisis. Trump said last year that the superpower would terminate its relationship with the WHO unless it “demonstrated independence” from China. The US President also called for a “transparent” investigation and criticised the terms under which Chinese experts conducted a first phase of research.
The mission is due to be led by Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s top expert on animal diseases that cross the species barrier, who went to China on a preliminary mission last July.