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WHO team investigating coronavirus origins denied entry into China

Ten WHO experts were due to arrive in China this week.

File image of WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
File image of WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

AN EXPERT MISSION to China to probe the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has been disrupted today after Beijing denied entry to the World Health Organization (WHO) team at the last minute despite months of negotiations.

Ten experts were due to arrive in China this week for the delicate, highly politicised task of establishing how and where the virus jumped from animals to humans.

But with a number of the team already in transit, China denied them entry visas, prodding WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to say he was “very disappointed”. 

The virus has resulted in the deaths of more than 1.8 million people around the world so far. 

The first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, prompting accusations of chaotic, secretive handling by Chinese authorities which led to its spread beyond China. 

Despite criticism, Beijing has so far resisted pressure for an independent probe and instead has seeded doubt as to whether the pandemic started inside its borders.

Beijing foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed the WHO team had not been admitted as planned, and said it was “not just a visa issue”. 

“The issue of origin-tracing is incredibly complicated,” she told reporters at a regular news briefing. 

“To ensure the work of the international expert team in China goes smoothly, we have to carry out necessary procedures and make relevant arrangements.”  

Talks were continuing over “the specific date and specific arrangement of the expert group’s visit,” Hua added, despite the months of negotiations already spent on setting up the trip. 

Critical mission

The origins of Covid-19 remain contested and the WHO trip was seen as an important way to seek clear answers on how it started. 

“We were all operating on the on the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said yesterday.

He stressed the “absolute critical nature” of the mission, acknowledging that the situation was “frustrating and… disappointing”. 

Scientists initially believed the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan. 

But experts now think the market may not have been the origin of the outbreak, but rather a place where it was amplified. 

It is widely assumed the virus originally came from bats, but the intermediate animal host that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown. 

Experts say geopolitics hollowed out the global cooperation needed to head off the virus in its early stages.  

At the time of the outbreak the Trump administration was locked in a brutal trade war with China and the US president used it as a political bludgeon. 

That soured Beijing’s mood for compromise and communication. 

Without the trade wars and other tensions raging in 2019, “January 2020 would not have played out the way it did”, said Ilona Kickbusch, the founding director and chair of the Global Health Centre in Geneva. 

“Geopolitics… put the world in this situation,” she told AFP in an interview. 

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Inside China, the narrative has been recast as a story of Chinese resilience and strong leadership by Communist authorities. 

China has broadly contained the pandemic and presided over an economic rebound. 

But whistleblowers have been silenced and citizen journalists jailed – including a 37-year-old woman imprisoned last week for four years over video reports from Wuhan during its prolonged lockdown. 

Hong Kong

Meanwhile, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong escalated dramatically today with police arresting more than 50 opposition figures in their largest operation since a draconian security law was imposed in the region.

The sweep is the latest salvo in Beijing’s battle to stamp out dissent in the semi-autonomous city after millions took to the streets in 2019 for democracy protests.

Police confirmed 53 people – including a US citizen – were arrested for “subversion” in an early morning operation today that involved about 1,000 officers.

The charges were sparked by an attempt by opposition groups last year to win a majority in the city’s partially-elected legislature.

Hong Kong’s security chief John Lee described the arrests as “necessary” and aimed at a group of people who tried to “sink Hong Kong into an abyss” and “overthrow the government”.

The operation sparked a rebuke from Antony Blinken, US President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, who said authorities were launching “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights”.

“The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” he added.

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