China: WHO experts arriving Thursday for virus origins probe

Beijing: China said on Monday that a group of experts from the World Health Organisation are due to arrive this week for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

A one-sentence announcement from the National Health Commission said the experts would arrive on Thursday and meet with Chinese counterparts, but it gave no other details. China was criticised heavily by the World Health Organisation over delays into the investigation.

Investigators wish to determine the source of the virus, which has been linked to the Huanan Seafood Market. Credit:Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

It wasn’t immediately clear whether they would be travelling to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.

China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread since it first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late in 2019.

Australia and other countries have called for an investigation into the origins of the virus.

The United States called for a "transparent" WHO-led investigation and criticised its terms, which allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research.

Ahead of the trip, Beijing has been seeking to shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began, with senior diplomat Wang Yi saying "more and more studies" showed it emerged in multiple regions.

While other countries continue to struggle with infection surges, China has aggressively doused flare-ups.

Sunday's 103 new cases were mainland China's biggest daily increase in more than five months, as new infections rise in the province of Hebei, surrounding the capital, Beijing.

Negotiations for the visit have long been under way. 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.

China's government has strictly controlled 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.

After Tedros' statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said the country was open to a visit but that it was still working on “necessary procedures and relevant concrete plans." China’s disease experts are currently busy, with multiple small-scale clusters and outbreaks reported in the past couple of weeks, ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

“Our experts are wholeheartedly in the stressful battle to control the epidemic,” Hua said.

Adding to the sense of urgency, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at UN 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 WHO and looking for a smooth visit “will happen.”

AP, Reuters

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