China has blocked a team of scientists investigating the Wuhan coronavirus’s origins from entering the country. According to Chinese officials, the visas of the World Health Organization (WHO) team had not yet been approved. The WHO has been trying to send a team consisting of global health experts from different countries for some months now.
WHO Health Emergencies Program Executive Director Dr. Mike Ryan said the WHO team had been working very closely with Chinese colleagues to make the trip possible. “We were all operating on the understanding that the team will begin deployment [on Jan. 5.] We did not want to put people in the air unnecessarily if there wasn’t a guarantee of their arrival in China being successful,” he explained.
Two team members coming from a long distance had already begun their trip – until it had become clear that Chinese authorities did not approve their visas. One of the two experts had gone back, while the other was still in a third country in transit. The team hoped it was “just a logical and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly.”
The mission aimed to visit the eastern Chinese city of Wuhan to investigate the earliest case of COVID-19. The WHO had been talking to Chinese officials since July 2020 to facilitate the team’s probe in China. A number of scientists have been looking at how the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen jumped from animals to humans. However, the WHO mission will not look into the claim that the virus originated from a laboratory.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus steps in
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed his dismay over the matter. “I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two team members have already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he commented.
Nevertheless, Tedros has called on China to allow the team in. He said: “I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials … [and] have once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for the WHO and the international team.”
Ryan confirmed Tedros’ intervention: “Dr. Tedros has taken immediate action and has spoken with senior Chinese officials, and has fully impressed upon them the absolute critical nature of this.” The WHO health emergencies program executive director commented that the organization’s director-general had “expressed very clearly” the disappointment over the denied visas to Chinese counterparts. He continued: “We trust that in good faith, we can solve these issues in the coming hours and recommence the deployment of the team as urgently as possible.”
The U.S. has slammed the WHO’s investigative mission in Wuhan
German scientist Fabian Leendertz, who is among the team members slated to visit Wuhan, said the mission will not aim to pin the blame on one party. Rather, the mission will focus on “understanding what happened.” Leendertz told Agence France-Presse: “This is not about finding a guilty country or a guilty authority. This is about understanding what happened to avoid that in the future [and] to reduce the risk.” (Related: Chinese citizens sue Wuhan officials over coronavirus coverup.)
However, the U.S. criticized the WHO’s mission for refusing to hold China responsible for the global pandemic. In November, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Global Affairs Director Garrett Grigsby said the investigation appeared to be “inconsistent” with the WHO’s mandate. He commented: “Understanding the origins of COVID-19 through a transparent and inclusive investigation is what must be done.”
U.S. President Donald Trump himself accused China of covering up key information during the pandemic’s early stages. He also branded the WHO as a puppet of Beijing, subsequently withdrawing its funding and membership in the organization. He elaborated in an April 7 tweet: “The WHO really blew it: For some reason, [it is] funded largely by the U.S., yet [it is] very China-centric. We will be giving that a good look.”
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