The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it was “very disappointed” that China had not allowed a team of international experts to go ahead with a visit to study the origins of COVID-19 that was planned for this week.
China’s decision to not permit the trip 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.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “very disappointed” the visit could not go forward. “Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” he said in Geneva. “I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials and I have once again made it clear the mission is a priority for the WHO.”
The comments marked a rare instance of the WHO head expressing some displeasure with China’s government, which he has consistently praised from the start of the pandemic.
He travelled to Beijing in January 28 last year, a week after authorities first revealed publicly that a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan could spread between people following three weeks of delays by local authorities. In a meeting then with President Xi Jinping, the WHO chief “praised the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated”.
Beijing on Wednesday defended its decision to delay the visit. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the issue of origin-tracing was “very complicated”. “To ensure the work of the international expert team in China goes smoothly, we have to carry out necessary procedures and make relevant arrangements,” Ms. Hua said, adding that China had in February and July last year invited WHO experts to come to China on the issue of tracing origins.
The WHO, however, said in December it had been granted permission for a visit of a team of 12-15 experts this month to study the origins of the outbreak. But how much the investigation will be able to achieve and how much access the team will have, more than one year after the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, has been debated by experts.
Chinese authorities have suggested they will exert control over how much access international scientists will have and have also controlled research within China on the origins. In recent weeks, the State media in China has increasingly backed a narrative suggesting the virus came to China from elsewhere.
Chinese scientists have been told that any studies into the origins of the coronavirus 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. One pre-print, later withdrawn, suggested the first human transmission took place on the Indian subcontinent.
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”.