China has barred a 10-member World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic from entering Wuhan, the capital city of the Hubei Province and famed birthplace of the COVID-19 disease. The delay comes despite months of negotiation and planning between Chinese officials and the 10-member expert team.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said two scientists on the United Nations team had already left their home countries for Wuhan when they were told that Chinese officials had not approved the necessary permissions to enter the country.
The WHO official said he was “very disappointed” that China had not finalized the permissions for the team’s arrival yet.
“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment,” he told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, has called the episode a “misunderstanding” and said China had “always held an open, transparent and responsible attitude” on tracing the origin of the virus.
“Chinese authorities are in close co-operation with WHO but there have been some minor outbreaks in multiple places around the world and many countries and regions are busy in their work preventing the virus and we are also working on this,” she added.
WHO officials have long been negotiating with Beijing to allow a team of global scientists access to key sites to investigate the origin of the virus that was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019.
The team of experts also intends to investigate the claim that the coronavirus originated from a Chinese lab. Dr Mike Ryan, who works for WHO, has stated that the team had been working very closely with their Chinese colleagues for planning the trip to China.
The calls for China to be more transparent about the origins and the response to the pandemic have grown significantly louder over time. The United States has led the charge in criticizing China’s handling of the pandemic, accusing Beijing of downplaying its severity and preventing an effective response until the spread got out of control.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the global pandemic. Trump also moved to terminate the country’s relationship with WHO, saying that China had not properly reported information it had about the coronavirus and had pressured WHO to “mislead the world.”
A CNN report in early December pointed to “leaked documents” revealing China’s mishandling of the early stages of Covid-19. The documents obtained from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Hubei province showed how Chinese officials gave the world more optimistic data than they had access to internally, by initially underreporting case numbers during the early stages of the outbreak.
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.