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WHO virus team to enter China this week

China announced it is "ready to receive" World Health Organization experts this week on an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organization's logo
The World Health Organization's logo (AN/U.S. Mission Geneva)

China's National Health Commission announced on Monday the government is "ready to receive" World Health Organization experts later this week and work together on an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing that China supports scientists from various countries in conducting global scientific research on the origins and transmission routes of the novel coronavirus.

"Upon consultation between the two sides, the Chinese government has agreed to the visit by WHO experts on January 14," he told the press briefing. "During the visit, the international experts will hold exchanges with Chinese scientists and medical experts over scientific cooperation in origin-tracing."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing later on Monday that his organization is "pleased that an international team of scientists — distinguished experts from ten institutions and countries — are commencing their travel to China to engage in and review scientific research with their Chinese counterparts on the origins of the virus."

At the briefing, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the U.N. health agency's chief scientist, predicted even with COVID-19 vaccines given to the most vulnerable populations this year, the world is "not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021."

Zeng Yixin, the National Health Commission's deputy head, said China and WHO reached a consensus on specific arrangements of the investigation after four video conferences, and that Chinese experts are now waiting for their WHO counterparts to arrive, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The news report posted on the commission's website quoted Zeng as saying China is "ready to receive a World Health Organization expert team for investigations into the origin of COVID-19," and that once the team's 10 scientific experts "complete their procedures and finalize the schedule, Chinese experts will go to Wuhan with them to conduct the investigation."

"Zeng stressed that China's position on the WHO investigation is positive, open and supportive, and the country hopes such joint efforts would help deepen the understanding of the virus and better prevent infectious diseases in the future," the news report said.

A question of transparency

Zhao said the two sides also jointly formulated the China part of a global plan for scientific cooperation on origin-tracing. "The WHO and international experts fully recognized China's epidemic response and origin-tracing work," he said. "The two sides have reached a basic consensus on origin-tracing, which is a scientific issue that should be jointly studied by scientists all over the world."

Another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson had said last week that Beijing was still negotiating the dates and terms of a visit by the WHO-led team planning to study how COVID-19 began. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s statement to a daily news briefing in Beijing had followed a statement by Tedros a day earlier that the visit was delayed by red tape.

Beijing has sought to control international research into the origins of the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan in late December, an Associated Press investigation found, and Chinese-controlled media suggested it may have originated in Europe. China's government also has been scrutinized for how forthcoming it was in its initial reporting in light of U.S. President Donald Trump's accusations that China was engaged in obstruction.

Tedros said last week he was frustrated with China over bureaucratic delays that were preventing WHO’s international team from entering the country. The team’s terms of reference were drawn up and each of the members were selected in November, yet team members were unable to enter the country for lack of visas.