A man walks in front of a mural at the Leishenshan Hospital that had offered beds for coronavirus patients in Wuhan on April 11, 2020. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

World Health Organization experts deployed to trace the origins of the coronavirus pandemic are set to arrrive in China this Thursday after Beijing earlier delayed in granting them visas and entry permits. 

The delays are likely a harbinger of the kind of reception the 10 medical and infectious disease specialists can expect when they touch down in the Chinese capital. It has been reported that Beijing is unlikely to grant them diplomatic courtesy or immunity upon their arrival. Some reports have also cited the WHO as saying that the expert team will head for Wuhan directly.

The WHO experts, hailing from countries such as Japan, Russia, Denmark and Qatar, will be put in quarantine at a sealed-off facility for two weeks and tested repeatedly for the virus they have been tasked to investigate. They are expected to spend much of February in the country.

No explicit details of their in-country itinerary have been released by Beijing or the WHO. Chinese state media, however, has revealed that cadres in charge of public health policies and experts appointed by the National Health Commission (NHC) will accompany the WHO team throughout their stay to “swap ideas and compare notes.” 

Wuhan, viewed by many as ground zero of the global pandemic, was glaringly missing on the itinerary of a small, advance team of WHO officials and experts when they flew into Beijing in July to request permission to conduct an international probe. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus flew into Beijing in February 2020 to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping after the pneumonia erupted in Wuhan. Photo: Xinhua

Newspapers in Hong Kong said on Tuesday that this time, the ten WHO experts will have access to Covid-19’s original epicenter of Wuhan to determine how the pathogen emerged and struck in the central Chinese megacity a little over a year ago. 

But they may not find anything worth scientific study. According to Wuhan’s media, the Huanan Market where the pneumonia first cropped up had been shut and thoroughly disinfected in several rounds of city-wide cleaning blitzes during Wuhan’s 76-day lockdown between February and April last year. 

Hopes that the WHO’s trip will break new ground in understanding the disease and its origins are therefore low.

An epidemiologist with Shanghai’s Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention said schedules of all exchanges with local experts and scientists must be approved in advance by the NHC as well as the Foreign Ministry. 

He said that the NHC always crams the itineraries for foreign health experts full of seminars, dinners and tours of government labs and facilities, and that they are usually accompanied by Chinese counterparts to ensure they do not deviate from pre-approved and pre-arranged routes to see or talk to anyone not included in the trips.

Beijing is now pumping up state media to purvey at home and abroad alternative narratives on the pandemic’s likely origins while at the same time nationalistically burnishing China’s image as a global winner of the battle against Covid-19.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has told his counterparts during trips across Africa and Southeast Asia that Covid-19 could have “multiple sources, versions and variants,” according to Xinhua.

While letting in WHO personnel and pledging cooperation, Beijing’s new imperative is to ensure the findings of the panel, if any, will not expose the country to further jabs or undercut the campaign to spin alternative theories on the disease’s origin.

The Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where it is believed the outbreak started. Photo: Weibo

In May, when a virtually-held WHO General Assembly passed a resolution proposed by the European Union for a worldwide Covid origin study, Beijing contended that curbing the viral spread was a more pressing task and that the source of the virus was less important. 

With China now mounting an all-out effort to contain the biggest Covid resurgence to hit the country since the Wuhan outbreak, some suggest the NHC may not accord much time to the WHO experts while concentrating on new outbreaks in Hebei, Beijing and elsewhere.

Suggestions have already been made for the WHO panel to head instead to Hebei province to gauge the viral situation on the ground, as the NHC noted last week that the strain spreading there could have originated in Europe.  

For the first time in almost six months, China logged more than 100 fresh infections on Sunday, with most of the cases confirmed in Hebei. Authorities also identified 76 asymptomatic carriers that day. 

The work of Dr. Shi Zhengli figures large in the dossier prepared by Western governments as intelligence agencies around the world investigate whether the virus inadvertently leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Credit: Agence France Presse.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Daily Mail leveled fresh allegations at China on Sunday after more than 300 papers on infectious diseases were reportedly pulled from the website of China’s National Natural Science Foundation.

The pulled publications included those conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Wuhan Institute of Virology about how viruses may jump from bats and other animals to humans.

Those papers, co-authored by Shi Zhengli, a virologist with the institute whose studies on bat-borne viruses were earlier in the global media spotlight amid conspiracy theories about a possible Wuhan lab leakage, have also been deleted. 

The newspaper said the removal of research papers could be part of Beijing’s bid to conceal facts before the arrival of the WHO team. Yet some of the papers can still be found and viewed on other platforms, including those operated by the CAS and Wuhan University. 

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