Beijing says it is communicating with the World Health Organization on arrangements for its team to visit China to investigate the origins of Covid-19, after the scientists learned at the last minute that they had not yet been granted entry.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday said details were still being discussed.
“It’s not just a visa issue. Both sides are in close communication on the specific dates and arrangements for the WHO mission’s visit to China,” Hua said in Beijing.
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“We understand the concerns of the WHO and that the quest for the origins of Covid-19 is very complicated. To make sure the team has a smooth visit, we need to make the relevant arrangements,” she said. “We certainly hope we can confirm the details as soon as possible and push forward our cooperation.”
Hua dismissed concerns about whether the WHO mission would proceed.
“I understand that there may be some misunderstanding but I believe there is no need to read too much into this [delay],” she said. “[Our] cooperation has been very smooth and pleasant, and I believe [we will] actively continue our cooperation.”
In rare criticism of Beijing, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Tuesday said he was “disappointed” that Chinese officials had not yet finalised the permissions for the team’s arrival in China, where the coronavirus was first detected in 2019 in the city of Wuhan.
“I am very disappointed with this news given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” Tedros said in Geneva.
The UN agency chief said he had been in contact with senior Chinese officials and he had “been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment”.
China is experiencing sporadic coronavirus outbreaks, with northern Hebei province recording more than 60 new locally transmitted cases in a single day on Tuesday. Several other northern cities such as Beijing, Shenyang and Dalian also reported new local infections.
Some of the new cases had a longer incubation period, prompting many Chinese cities – including Beijing, Dalian and Shenzhen – to extend their quarantine requirements from 14 to 21 days.
The WHO team had been expected to head to China early in the new year for a six-week mission, including two weeks of quarantine on arrival, Reuters reported in December.
Among the 10-member international team is Dutch researcher Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus Medical Centre’s Department of Viroscience in Rotterdam, who learned about the delay as she was preparing for departure.
“We were informed that we need to wait as travel permission was not yet clear,” said Koopmans, who has been involved in research into coronavirus outbreaks among farmed minks in the Netherlands.
The virologist said the WHO team planned to do a detailed reconstruction based on the available scientific evidence starting from the early stages of the pandemic.
“We will look at what the data so far tell us, what are the conclusions from that work so far, and formulate follow-up questions and studies from there,” Koopmans said.
“This [delay] is disappointing. I look forward to the trip. We have been discussing online with our colleagues in China, but I think work and discussions are much easier if you can meet face to face,” she said.
According to the WHO, one of the two team members already en route to China had turned back and had a “reasonably short journey home”, while the other scientist was in transit in a third country awaiting further news.
Meg Davis, a research fellow at the Global Health Centre of the Graduate Institute in Geneva, said the incident underscored China’s difficulties with transparency and accountability, and the importance of multilateral collaboration to effectively respond to the coronavirus and future outbreaks.
“I think it’s important that WHO hold China to account for this failure to share information and to allow an investigation,” Davis said. “I think this shows more than ever that we need independent civil society and media in China to share information on the ground with the rest of the world.
“It’s hard to believe the WHO would have people get on a plane and go to China if they hadn’t received the official invitation,” she said. “So it’s all very disturbing.”
Additional reporting by Jun Mai and Linda Lew
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