China said that a World Health Organization team of experts will arrive this week to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, after the country was criticized 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 Jan. 14, the National Health Commission said 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 traveling.
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’s unclear if the outside experts will be allowed to visit Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 cases first emerged last year.
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 flareups 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 didn’t 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 U.S. and Italy that predate those in Wuhan.
On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman 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 politicized: Zhao last March espoused a theory that linked the virus to the U.S. 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 the politicization of the search may make tracing the origin, typically a painstaking exercise, virtually impossible, especially over 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 fueled concern that Beijing is obstructing international efforts to trace the source of a pandemic that has now killed over 1.9 million people worldwide. The WHO has been charged in the past with being overly deferential to China.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.