BEIJING (AFP) – The government said on Monday that experts from the World Health Organization will arrive in China this week to conduct a long-awaited investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Health Commission said in a one-sentence statement that did not give further details, that the experts will arrive on Thursday and meet with their Chinese counterparts.
It was not immediately clear whether the experts would travel to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.
Negotiations for the visit have been underway for a long time. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed disappointment last week with the delays, saying that members of the international scientific team departing from their countries of origin had already begun their journey as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that China agreed to the visit after consultations between the two sides, describing it as an opportunity to “exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on tracing the origin of the new Corona virus.”
“Besides the continuous changes in the epidemiological situation, our knowledge of the virus is deepening, and more early cases are being discovered,” Zhao told reporters in a daily briefing, adding that the search for the origin will likely include “multiple countries and localities.”
An Associated Press investigation found that the Chinese government has strictly censored all research at home on the origins of the virus.Meanwhile, state-owned media have played marginal theories suggesting that the virus may have originated elsewhere.
An Associated Press investigation found that the Chinese government is providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists searching for the origin of the virus in southern China. But it is monitoring their findings and forcing approval for any data or research to be published by a new working group run by the Chinese Cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The culture of secrecy is believed to have delayed warnings about the pandemic, prevented information sharing with the World Health Organization, and hindered early testing. Australia and other countries called for an investigation into the origin of the virus, which sparked angry reactions from Beijing.
There was no immediate comment from the World Health Organization on Monday’s announcement, but UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric earlier told reporters at the United Nations headquarters in New York that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “fully supports the efforts of Dr. Tedros and the WHO to get a team.” over there.”
Dujarric said: “It is very important for the World Health Organization to play a leading role in fighting the epidemic, in an attempt to reconsider the roots of this epidemic so that we can better prepare for the next epidemic.” “We very much hope” will happen to the comments of China, which stated that it is working with WHO and looks forward to a smooth visit.
The origins of the virus have been the source of intense speculation, most of which has focused on the possibility that bats may have carried it and spread to humans through intermediate species sold as food or medicine in traditional Chinese wet markets.
China has largely halted new cases of the local virus, but said on Monday that dozens of people had tested positive for the coronavirus in Hebei province, which borders Beijing.
This outbreak comes amid measures to limit the spread of the virus further during the Lunar New Year holiday next month. The authorities called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools to close a week ago, and conducted tests on a large scale.
China has recorded 87,536 cases of the virus, including 4,634 deaths. Officials said hospitals are currently treating 673 people for COVID-19, while 506 others are in isolation and under observation after testing positive without showing symptoms.
The Hebei outbreak has caused particular concern due to the province’s proximity to Beijing. Parts of the province are subject to lockdown and travel between provinces has been cut to a large extent, as those entering Beijing for work must show proof of employment and a clean health bill.
Beijing has also seen quite a few new cases, prompting authorities to shut down some suburban communities and require residents to show negative test results to access groceries and other public places.