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WHO chief criticizes China over virus team

The U.N. health agency chief expressed rare displeasure with China over delays preventing a scientific team from investigating how COVID-19 originated.

WHO's director-general at a virtual news briefing in Geneva
WHO's director-general at a virtual news briefing in Geneva (AN/WHO)

GENEVA (AN) — The U.N. health agency chief expressed displeasure with China on Tuesday over bureaucratic delays preventing an international team from entering the country to investigate how COVID-19 originated.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a politician and public health expert who headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, has rarely criticized Chinese officials in connection with the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in late December 2019.

But with global pressure building for WHO's team of 10 public health experts and scientists to get to the bottom of how it began, Tedros said he was disappointed that Beijing has not yet given authorization for them to begin working in China.

"Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team's arrival in China," he told a virtual news conference in Geneva. "I am 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."

Tedros, however, said he has been in contact with senior Chinese officials and made clear to them "the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team." China has given him assurances, he said, that it is "speeding up the internal procedures" to get team members in place quickly for the four-to-five-week mission. "We're eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible," he added.

'A logistic and bureaucratic issue'

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said team members had planned to begin working in China on Tuesday, but were instructed by WHO not to begin traveling due to their lack of Chinese "visa clearances." He emphasized that Tedros "fully impressed upon" Chinese officials the importance of the team's mission.

Its members hail from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Qatar, Russia, the United States and Vietnam. They are to work in cooperation with Chinese public health officials and scientists.

“We trust and we hope that this is just a logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly,” Ryan added. "This is very frustrating and, as the director-general has said, this is disappointing. That disappointment has been expressed very clearly by Dr. Tedros directly to our counterparts in China, and 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."

U.S. President Donald Trump's blistering criticism of WHO as being overly deferential to China when the coronavirus was detected was among his chief reasons for giving notice to the United Nations in July that he was withdrawing the United States from the U.N. health agency.

He repeatedly accused WHO of being too soft on Beijing, and claimed Chinese officials had misleadingly “ignored” a requirement to report outbreaks. Tedros and other WHO officials have also been criticized for excessively praising China's initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

In late June, WHO updated its pandemic timeline to reflect that China did not directly notify global authorities of the first “viral pneumonia” cases in Wuhan. Instead, it said, WHO's field office in China “picked up a media statement" from a Wuhan health commission website about the new outbreak and spotted the cases on December 31 in an open-source platform for information on outbreaks. WHO said it then requested more information the next day.