The World Health Organization took the rare step of criticizing China on Tuesday, using its first press conference of the new year to express disappointment that Beijing has still not given permission to United Nations investigators to probe the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that several scientists on the U.N. agency’s team researching the pandemic’s source had left their home countries on Monday and Tuesday, after the Chinese government had agreed to allow their entry. But while team members were en route, Tuesday, the WHO was told that Chinese officials had not yet finalized the necessary permissions for their arrival, Dr. Tedros said.
Some members were still waiting for visas, said Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, and at least one member has begun returning home.
“I am very disappointed in this news,” said Dr. Tedros. “I have once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team. I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure.”
“We are eager to get the mission under way as soon as possible,” he added.
The unusual rebuke was a sign of tension building between the agency and one of its most important members.
For nearly a year, the WHO has been negotiating with China’s government to get information on how the disease may have first crossed into the human population, as well as access to key sites in Wuhan.
Answers could help prevent another virus lurking in animals from making a similar leap, epidemiologists say, and could clear up debates over how long the virus had been circulating, or which early mutations allowed it to spread and ultimately kill at least 1.9 million people as of Tuesday.
China said Wednesday that it and the WHO are still discussing details such as when the scientists would visit the country.
“I believe there hasn’t been any problem in cooperation with the WHO,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a daily briefing. “There might be some misunderstanding in this. But there is no need to read too much into it.”
The WHO rarely criticizes the national governments that fund its budget and elect its leaders. For its top official to call out China shows how the agency has struggled to get Beijing’s cooperation on important issues. Early on, in late January of last year, the WHO panel tasked with declaring a public health emergency expressed frustration that epidemiological data sent from China was too imprecise and paltry to act upon.
Days later, Dr. Tedros flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, praising China’s containment efforts in what several WHO officials later said was an attempt to encourage Beijing to offer more details on the nature of the then still-mysterious outbreak.
But in the intervening year, the WHO has struggled to get information and access that would help it resolve one of the key questions lingering over the pandemic: how the disease first began infecting people in late 2019.
WHO staff who visited in February 2020 weren’t allowed to visit the seafood market in Wuhan that hosted some of the earliest case clusters. In May, Australia led nearly all of the WHO’s member states to back a resolution calling for investigators to ascertain the origins of the pandemic. That effort gained momentum over the summer, when WHO scientists joined subsequent trips to China, but they were still not allowed to visit the Wuhan market, which had been disinfected and scrubbed clean on Dec. 31, 2019, within hours of word of an unexplained outbreak first reaching the WHO.
“The WHO is a member state organization and they do rarely call them out unless behind-the-scenes efforts have really failed,” said Alexandra Phelan, a researcher at the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science & Security. “It does tell us that the lines of communication have broken down.”
Chinese government officials have defended their early actions, saying China offered information on the new virus “in an open, transparent, and responsible manner and in accordance with the law,” per a Chinese government white paper referenced by the country’s National Health Commission.
It has also cast doubt on whether the virus really began in China, with senior Chinese diplomats tweeting articles and videos that suggest it may have begun in the U.S.—a view generally dismissed by epidemiologists. In a speech to the WHO in May, Mr. Xi also appeared to express uncertainty about the origins of the pandemic, saying: “We also need to continue supporting global research by scientists on the source and transmission routes of the virus.”
In the U.S., President Trump vowed to leave the WHO, with senior administration officials saying Dr. Tedros’ praise for the Chinese government’s Covid-19 response is largely behind that decision. In April, Republicans in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the WHO asking unsuccessfully for Dr. Tedros to resign. Other governments whose relations with China are fraught—such as Japan, Taiwan, and Australia—have faulted the WHO for not being more critical of China, placing the U.N. agency at the center of geopolitical tensions between China and America’s allies in Asia.
“This is the Chinese government wanting to perpetrate the argument that the virus started elsewhere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health security scholar at the University of Sydney, who helped write the international laws that govern the WHO. “They are very clearly on a mission to try and avert attention away from China being the source of the virus.”
—Yoko Kubota contributed to this article.
Write to Drew Hinshaw at email@example.com
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