This photo taken on January 2, 2021 shows a health worker taking a swab sample to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a temporary testing centre in Shenyang, in China's northeast Liaoning province. Photo: AFP via China OUT/Stringer

China has yet to explain why it delayed approval for a World Health Organization (WHO) team of experts to visit the country, significantly at a time when state media publish claims that the coronavirus pandemic started elsewhere.

The WHO team’s members were supposed to arrive in Beijing this week and possibly make a field visit to Wuhan, where Covid-19 cases apparently first emerged a little more than a year ago and before the disease began its lethal global spread. 

The unexpected delays triggered today rare criticism from WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said he was “deeply disappointed” by the delay in issuing visas for the team.

Ghebreyesus said that the 10-member group could not enter China for an epidemiological survey of the novel coronavirus, a key part of the WHO’s endeavor to ascertain the likely origins of the respiratory disease.

He said the infectious disease experts, led by food safety and zoonotic diseases scientist Peter Ben Embarek, were still waiting for their visas to travel to China.       

Reports indicate Embarek made a sortie to the country in July and convinced Beijing to open its doors to WHO personnel to conduct a prognosis probe.

At the beginning of 2020, Chinese authorities closed Wuhan after a ‘viral pneumonia of unknown origin’ was reported. This year, the city has recovered and people crowded together for a New Year’s countdown. Photo: AFP

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday in response to a media question that she had “no new information” on the WHO team’s trip and itinerary. 

Instead, Hua reiterated Beijing’s latest line, first purveyed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, that “more signs and studies worldwide” had suggested Covid-19 could have “multiple sources” and that the pandemic had erupted globally across “multiple locations” since the second half of 2019.

Hua said related surveys have indicated a much earlier emergence of the pathogen in many more places than previously thought. She also hoped other countries could make “joint efforts” with the WHO to trace Covid-19 to its source.  

“We hope scientists can uphold professionalism and truth to find [Covid-19] origins worldwide, and that other countries can cooperate with and assist [the WHO] like what we have been doing since day one,” claimed Hua. 

While several WHO officials and experts like Embarek were indeed allowed into China in 2020, Wuhan was glaringly and constantly missing on their Beijing-approved itineraries.

It’s not clear yet that the delay in the WHO expert team’s arrival reflects a change in policy by Beijing. 

In December, the state-run nationalistic Global Times revealed a WHO “advance team” could go to Wuhan in January to inspect a wet market trading exotic wildlife in the city that is believed to be a possible origin of the virus.

The paper also cited WHO officials as saying that all team members from Japan, Qatar, Denmark, Russia and others would first be put in quarantine in Beijing for 14 days. It added that an “open, fair” WHO investigation would help debunk the “mudslinging, fake news and conspiracy theories about the ‘China virus’” being spread by some American politicians, not least outgoing US President Donald Trump.  

“Wuhan was the first city, via Beijing, to have notified the WHO of the virus and an outbreak since the end of 2019 and well into January 2020, but that does not necessarily mean Wuhan was the source,” said the paper, a sister publication of the top Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily. 

President Xi Jinping poses for a photo as he visits the Covid-19 epicenter Wuhan, in Hubei province, on March 10. Photo: AFP/EyePress

A source with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Asia Times that one possible reason behind the delayed trip could be the outbreaks of the virus hitting Hebei province since the New Year. 

He said the National Health Commission has scrambled a contingent of top virologists to the northern province to trace hidden cases and contain any spillovers that may affect Beijing. Some of these experts originally planned to accompany their WHO counterparts during their trip in China, including to Wuhan. Hebei has reported 34 local infections since Tuesday.

“With cases flaring up again near Beijing and the national health authority responding to the big resurgence, clearly receiving a WHO team is no longer a top priority,” said the source.  

Reports indicate that one WHO expert decided to cancel his flights and return to Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, fearing he could be left cooling his heels at the airport after landing in China.

Another expert is now reportedly stuck in a transit county, apparently waiting for word on the team’s visas. 

A foreign passenger goes through immigration and health checks in front of Chinese customs officers in hazmat gear at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Photo: China News Service

In the meantime, Chinese and Western officials continue to trade Covid-related accusations and recriminations.

US President Trump again used the term “China virus” in his New Year’s speech. In China, a new narrative from a senior Xinhua editor is also making the rounds on social media.

This comes after Zhao Lijian, Hua’s colleague at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, leveled outrageous allegations at the US military, claiming they first bought the virus to Wuhan.

Xiong Lei, a deputy director of Xinhua News Agency’s special feature division, posted on social media what she claimed were findings of her investigative reporting into a Harvard-led DNA sampling project that was held in eastern Anhui province in the 1990s.

In her post, Xiong alleged that the number of DNA samples collected during the Harvard project in Anhui, reportedly funded by the US National Institutes of Health, was three times larger than the amount approved by the Chinese government and that two types of samples had been used for respiratory disease studies.    

She went so far as to suggest that the SARS pandemic of 2003, which mainly hit China, and the Covid-19 contagion in Wuhan, could have something to do with the Harvard School of Public Health’s collection of DNA and biological samples from the Chinese population. 

“China has never collected DNA samples from foreign populations. So it’s preposterous for some in the US government and institutions, which collect such samples from overseas, to suggest that the Covid virus could have been engineered and manufactured in a bio lab in Wuhan,” said Xiong. 

Harvard has repeatedly denied all accusations when Xiong first linked its Anhui project to SARS a few years ago, stressing the project, initiated by an associate professor of public health who hailed from China, had been approved by Beijing before it started in that province. 

Nonetheless, many Chinese netizens believe Xiong’s claims have “plausible elements” given her capacity as a Xinhua senior editor and her father’s background as a spy chief in Mao Zedong’s Red Army during China’s civil war in the 1940s.

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