WHO virus investigators head to China, but await visas


Geneva (AFP)

Members of a team of international experts have left for China to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Beijing has yet to grant them entry, the WHO chief said on Tuesday.

“Today we learned that Chinese officials have yet to finalize the necessary clearances for the team’s arrival in China,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

“I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already started their trip and others were unable to travel at the last minute,” he said, in a rare reprimand from Beijing of the part of the UN body.

He stressed that he had been in contact with senior Chinese officials to clarify “that the mission is a priority for the WHO and the international team”.

“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for deployment as soon as possible.”

World Health Organization emergency director Michael Ryan said in Tuesday’s briefing that the problem was a lack of visa clearance.

“We have confidence and hope that this is just a logistical and bureaucratic problem that can be resolved very quickly. ”

WHO has been working for months to send a 10-person team of international experts, including epidemiologists and animal health specialists, to China to help probe the animal origin of the novel coronavirus pandemic and how the virus was first transmitted to humans.

But the mission is sensitive, and neither the WHO nor China had so far confirmed exactly when it was due to start, with the UN health agency hinting it would take place during the first. week of january.

– “Critical” mission –

Ryan pointed out that the WHO had “worked on close planning with colleagues in China and other countries for sending the team.”

“We were all operating on the premise that the team would start deployment today,” he said, adding that two team members from afar had left early on Tuesday, before he became clear that the necessary approvals had not been received.

“We are confident that in good faith we can resolve these issues in the coming hours and restart the team deployment as quickly as possible,” said Ryan.

He stressed the “utter criticality” of the mission, acknowledging that the situation was “frustrating and… disappointing”.

Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, before infiltrating beyond Chinese borders to wreak havoc, costing more than 1.8 million lives and gutting them savings.

But its origins remain hotly contested, lost in a haze of recriminations and conjectures from the international community – as well as the obscuring of Chinese authorities determined to keep control of the virus narrative.

Scientists initially believed the killer virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected late last year.

But experts now believe the market may not have been the source of the outbreak, but rather a place where it has amplified.

It is widely believed that the virus originated in bats, but the intermediate animal host that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown.


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