China says WHO scientists probing Covid-19 origins to visit Thursday

China says WHO scientists investigating Covid-19 origins can enter the country on Thursday after last-minute ban prompted cover-up accusations

  • Experts will meet with Chinese counterparts, the National Health Commission said in a one-sentence statement that gave no other details
  • The government declined to provide the team’s itinerary for their visit to China 
  • It comes after the head of WHO criticised China for not finalising permissions
  • Foreign Ministry said China’s position on origins of virus ‘has always been open’ 

China has said scientists from the World Health Organisation investigating the origins of Covid-19 will be allowed into the country on Thursday. 

On their arrival, the experts will meet with Chinese counterparts, the National Health Commission (NHC) said in a one-sentence statement that gave no other details.

The international community is hoping the experts can visit the ‘wet market’ where the virus is believed to have emerged and retrace in detail those early days of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

But the NHC declined to provide the team’s itinerary and it was not immediately clear whether the scientists would be travelling to Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected a year ago.  

Pictured: Workers in protective suits walk past the Hankou railway station in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, April 2020. Wuhan is believed to have been where the Covid-19 outbreak, that sparked the global pandemic, began. The first case was reported on December 31, 2019

The brief announcement comes after China initially banned WHO experts from entering the country last week, sparking accusations of a cover-up.   

China has been accused of initially covering up the outbreak that first emerged in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, which critics say delayed China’s initial response and allowed COVID-19 to spread globally.

China’s position on the hunt for the origins of the pandemic ‘has always been open and responsible’, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying last week. 

China’s position on the hunt for the origins of the pandemic ‘has always been open and responsible’, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (pictured)

‘The origins problem is very complex. To ensure that the work of the global experts group in China is successful and to carry out the necessary procedures and relevant concrete plans, currently both sides are still in negotiations on this,’ Ms Hua told a regular press briefing.

‘I understand that it’s not just a visa problem and the actual date and itinerary. Both sides are still in close communication.’ 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed disappointment last week over delays, saying that members of the international scientific team departing from their home countries had already started on their trip as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government.  

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that members of the international scientific team began departing from their home countries over the last 24 hours as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government

Dr Tedros said at the time: ‘Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China.

‘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 said.

But today, the Chinese government decided to allow the experts into the country.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China had approved the visit following consultations between the sides and called it an opportunity to ‘exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on the tracing of the origin of the new coronavirus.’

‘Along with continuous changes in the epidemic situation, our knowledge of the virus deepens, and more early cases are discovered,’ Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, adding that the search for the origin will likely involve ‘multiple countries and localities.’

The Chinese government has been strictly controlling all research at home into the origins of the virus, an Associated Press investigation found, and state-owned media have played up reports that suggest the virus could have originated elsewhere.

The culture of secrecy is believed to have delayed warnings about the pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with the WHO and hampered early testing. 

Australia and other countries have called for an investigation into the origins of the virus, prompting angry responses from Beijing.

There was no immediate comment from the WHO on Monday’s announcement, but U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric had earlier told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ‘is fully supportive of Dr. Tedros’ and WHO’s efforts to get a team in there.’

‘It’s very important that as the WHO is in the lead in fighting the pandemic, that it also has a leading role in trying to look back at the roots of this pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next one,’ Dujarric said. 

‘We very much hope’ that China’s reported comments that it is working with the WHO and looking for a smooth visit ‘will happen.’

Visitors attend an exhibition on the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Wuhan Parlor Convention Center that previously served as a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan

The virus’ origins have been the source of intense speculation, much of it centered around the likelihood that it was carried by bats and passed to humans through an intermediary species sold as food or medicine in traditional Chinese wet markets.

China has largely stemmed new cases of domestic transmission, but the government said today that scores of people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Hebei province, bordering Beijing.

Today, Wuhan was forced to shut its markets once again and launched a mass-testing campaign after two people from China’s new Covid-19 epicentre in the northern Hebei province near Beijing visited the city before testing positive, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.

China’s disease experts are currently busy with multiple small-scale clusters and outbreaks reported in the past couple of weeks, Ms Hua said last week.

Staff from the Wuhan Hygiene Emergency Response team leave the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan a year ago on January 11 2020 

People, all wearing face masks, walk through the brightly lit streets of Wuhan as they enjoy shopping together on January 10 2021

‘Our experts are wholeheartedly in the stressful battle to control the epidemic,’ she said.

The outbreaks comes amid measures to curb the further spread of the virus during next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a massive scale.

China has recorded 87,536 total cases of the virus, including 4,634 deaths. Hospitals are currently treating 673 people for COVID-19, while 506 others are in isolation and under observation after testing positive without showing symptoms., officials said.

The Hebei outbreak has raised particular concern because of the province’s proximity to Beijing. Parts of the province are under lockdown and interprovincial travel has been largely cut off, with those entering Beijing to work having to show proof of employment and a clean bill of health.

Beijing has also seen a handful of new cases, prompting authorities to lock down some suburban communities and require residents to show negative test results to access grocery stores and other public spaces. 

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