WHO’s virus mission in disarray as China refuses team entry

Published January 7, 2021
XINGTAI (China): A medical worker in a protective suit collects a swab sample from a school student during mass testing following a new Covid-19 outbreak here on Wednesday.—Reuters
XINGTAI (China): A medical worker in a protective suit collects a swab sample from a school student during mass testing following a new Covid-19 outbreak here on Wednesday.—Reuters

BEIJING: An expert mission to China to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic was in disarray on Wednesday after Beijing denied entry to the World Health Organisation team at the last minute despite months of painstaking negotiations.

Ten experts were due to arrive in China this week for the delicate, highly politicised task of establishing how and where the virus jumped from animals to humans.

But with a number of the team members already in transit, China denied them entry visas, prodding WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to say he was “very disappointed”.

China is apparently determined to control the origin story of the virus, which has killed more than 1.8 million people around the world and laid waste to global economies.

The first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, prompting accusations of chaotic, secretive handling by Chinese authorities which led to its spread beyond China. US President Donald Trump called the pandemic the “China virus”.

Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed the WHO team had not been admitted as planned, and said it was “not just a visa issue”. “The issue of origin-tracing is incredibly complicated,” she told reporters at a regular news briefing.

“To ensure the work of the international expert team in China goes smoothly, we have to carry out necessary procedures and make relevant arrangements.”

Talks were continuing over “the specific date and specific arrangement of the expert group’s visit”, Hua added, despite the months of negotiations already spent on setting up the trip.

The origins of Covid-19 remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture from the international community. The WHO trip was seen as an important way to cut through the rancour and seek clear answers on how it started.

“We were all operating on the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said. He stressed the “absolute critical nat­ure” of the mission.

Scientists initially beli­eved the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in Wuhan. But experts now think the market may not have been the origin of the outbreak, but rather a place where it was amplified.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2021

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