China has blocked the arrival of a team from the World Health Organization investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that their visas had not yet been approved even as some members of the group were on their way.
Two members had already set out on their journey – one has now turned back and the other is in transit in a third country. The WHO said the problem was a lack of visa clearances.
What WHO said
The WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed his dismay and said he had called on China to allow the team in. “I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two members have already begun their journeys, and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he said. “But I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials. And I have once again made made it clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team.”
What probe might have looked like
The long-awaited probe was agreed upon by Beijing in December after many months of negotiations with the WHO. The WHO has been working to send a 10-person team of international experts to China for months with the aim of probing the animal origin of the pandemic and exactly how the virus first crossed over to humans.
Last month, it was announced that the investigation would begin in January 2021.
COVID detected in Wuhan in late 2019
The virus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, with the initial outbreak linked to a market. It was initially believed the virus originated in a market selling exotic animals for meat. It was suggested that this was where the virus made the leap from animals to humans. But the origins of the virus remain deeply contested.
Some experts now believe the market may not have been the origin, and that it was instead only amplified there. Some research has suggested that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans may have been circulating undetected in bats for decades. It is not known, however, what intermediate animal host transmitted the virus between bats and humans.
What the US is saying
The mission has been criticised by the US, where the outgoing president, Donald Trump, has categorically blamed the Chinese for the pandemic.
Garrett Grigsby, of the US Department of Health and Human Services, said in November the investigation appeared to be “inconsistent” with the WHO’s mandate. “Understanding the origins of Covid-19 through a transparent and inclusive investigation is what must be done to meet the mandate.”
Dr Mike Ryan at WHO said the team had been working very closely with Chinese colleagues on planning the trip. “We were all operating on the understanding the team will begin deployment today [Tuesday],” he had said.
“We did not want to put people in the air unnecessarily if there wasn’t a guarantee of their arrival in China being successful,” said Ryan. “Dr Tedros has taken immediate action and has spoken with senior Chinese officials and has fully impressed upon them the absolute critical nature of this.”
The team hoped it was “just a logistical and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly”.
“This is frustrating and, as the director general said, disappointing. That disappointment has been expressed very clearly by Dr Tedros directly to our counterparts in China.
We trust that in good faith, we can solve these issues in the coming hours and recommence the deployment of the team as urgently as possible,” said Ryan.