UN body says scientists were due to be deployed to country on Tuesday, but China says negotiations ongoing
A man who recovered from Covid-19 is disinfected by medical staff as he leaves a hospital in Wuhan, China, in February 2020. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
China has attempted to downplay concerns over its refusal to authorise a fact-finding mission to the country by the World Health Organization to study the origins of Covid-19, saying it is still negotiating access with the UN body.
A day after the head of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he was “very disappointed” that China had not authorised the entry of the 10-strong research team, led by Dr Peter Ben Embarek, China insisted there had been a “misunderstanding” between the two sides about agreed dates for the visit, adding that discussions were ongoing.
Tedros said on Tuesday that members of the international scientific team had begun departing their home countries over the previous 24 hours as part of an arrangement between WHO andChina, but that he had discovered Chinese officials had still not finalised the necessary permissions.
“I’m 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, but had been in contact with senior Chinese officials,” he told a news conference in Geneva.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing that the problem was “not just about visas” for the team.
Asked about reports that the dates had been agreed upon, she said there had been a “misunderstanding” and the two sides were still in discussions over the timing and other arrangements.
“The origins problem is very complex. To ensure that the work of the global experts group in China is successful, we need to carry out the necessary procedures and relevant concrete plans. Currently both sides are still in negotiations on this,” Hua said.
“I understand that it’s not just a visa problem and the actual date and itinerary. Both sides are still in close communication.”
The novel coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread around the world.
Much remains unknown about its origins and China has been sensitive about any suggestion it could have done more in the early stages of the pandemic to stop it.
The issue of the virus’s origins – and attempts to research them – became hugely politicised, not least by the Trump administration and its allies, who have questioned China’s lack of transparency at the beginning of the outbreak as well as promoted unfounded theories about how the virus could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
For its part, China has also promoted misinformation about the virus as it has sought to muddy the picture about when and where the pandemic began, with senior diplomat Wang Yi saying “more and more studies” showed that it emerged in multiple regions. WHO emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, has previously called this “highly speculative”.
China has also dismissed criticism of its handling of early cases although the WHO trip was seen as an important way to cut through the rancour and seek clear answers on the origins of the virus.
“We were all operating on the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” Ryan said on Tuesday.
Scientists initially believed the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan.
But some experts now think the market may not have been the origin of the outbreak, but rather a place where it was amplified.
It is widely assumed the virus originally came from bats, but the intermediate animal host that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown.