Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

China says a World Health Organisation (WHO) team of experts will arrive this week to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, after the country was criticised by the health body and other nations for a lack of transparency around tracking the pathogen’s source.

The team of scientists will come to China from January 14, the National Health Commission said on Monday. The confirmation of a date comes after a rare rebuke by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who expressed disappointment last week that China had not yet given final permission for the experts’ entry, even as some had already started travelling.

The investigation into the virus’s origin will be conducted jointly with Chinese scientists once the WHO team arrives, the NHC said, without providing further details. It is unclear if the outside experts will be allowed to visit Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 cases first emerged in 2020.

The probe comes almost a year since China locked down Wuhan as an outbreak of pneumonia that started with food-market workers in late 2019 spread throughout the city. China has now largely contained the virus, except for sporadic flare-ups it quells with mass testing and occasional lockdowns. Stung by criticism that it initially covered up the extent of the crisis — giving other countries less time to prepare — state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus did not start in China, but was brought in.

After a spate of cases in Chinese port and cold storage workers, China is pushing the possibility that the coronavirus could have entered the country on imported frozen food. State-backed media have also seized on research that suggests there were infections in the US and Italy that predate those in Wuhan.

On Monday China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a daily press briefing in Beijing that “with increased understanding of the virus and the timeline of the first case being moved forward, origin tracing may involve more countries and regions.

“The WHO will need to conduct similar studies in other countries and regions,” he said.

The virus’s origins have been politicised: Zhao last March espoused a theory that linked the virus to the US military, while China imposed trade restrictions on Australia after its government called for an international probe.

For its part, the Trump administration has propagated the theory that a high-security laboratory in Wuhan that studies some of the world’s worst infectious disease threats may have leaked the virus that causes Covid-19, either accidentally or deliberately. Scientists have expressed concern that the politicisation of the search may make tracing the origin, typically already a painstaking exercise, virtually impossible, especially more than a year on from the first known outbreak.

The WHO team’s visit has been under negotiation for months and Monday’s statement was China’s first affirmation of that effort. Tedros’s criticism fuelled concern that Beijing is obstructing international efforts to trace the source of a pandemic that has now killed more than 1.9-million people worldwide. The WHO has been charged in the past with being overly deferential to China.

Bloomberg

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