An expert mission to China to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic was in disarray on Wednesday after Beijing denied last-minute access to the World Health Organization’s team despite months of careful negotiation.
Ten experts would arrive in China this week for the sensitive, highly politicized task of determining 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 and asked WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to say he was “very disappointed”.
China is determined to control the history of the virus, which has killed more than 1.8 million people around the world and wasted global economies.
The first cases of the coronavirus were registered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, leading to allegations of chaotic, secretive handling by Chinese authorities that led to its spread outside China.
US President Donald Trump called the pandemic “China virus”.
Despite the hail of criticism, Beijing has so far resisted pressure for an independent probe and instead has been questioned whether the pandemic even started within its borders.
‘Not just visa problems’
Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying confirmed that the WHO team had not been adopted as planned and acknowledged that it was not just “a visa problem”.
“The issue of tracing origin is extremely complicated,” she told reporters in a regular news report.
“To ensure that the work of the International Expert Group in China runs smoothly, we must carry out the necessary procedures and make relevant arrangements.”
The talks continued during “the specific date and the specific arrangement for the expert group’s visit”, Hua added, despite the months of negotiations already spent on starting the journey.
The origins of Covid-19 remain bitterly questioned, lost in a fog of accusations and guesses from the international community – as well as the disguise of Chinese authorities determined to control the virus’ story.
The WHO trip was seen as an important way to cut through the rancor and seek clear answers on how it started.
“We all worked with the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” WHO emergency director Michael Ryan said on Tuesday.
He stressed the “absolutely critical nature” of the mission and acknowledged that the situation was “frustrating and … disappointing”.
Researchers initially believed that the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan.
But experts now believe that the market may not have been the origin of the eruption, but rather a place where it was strengthened.
It is generally believed that the virus originally came from bats, but the intermediate animal values that transmitted it between bats and humans are still unknown.
Experts say that geopolitics deepened the global cooperation needed to eradicate the virus at an early stage.
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.
This worsened Beijing’s mood for compromise and communication.
Without trade wars and other tensions that erupted in 2019, “January 2020 would not have turned out the way it did,” said Ilona Kickbusch, founder and president of the Global Health Center in Geneva.
“Geopolitics … put the world in this situation,” she told AFP in an interview.
Inside China, the story of a devastating infection has been reworked as a tale of Chinese resilience and strong leadership from communist authorities.
China has largely contained the pandemic and chaired an economic recovery.
But whistleblowers have been silenced and civic journalists arrested – including a 37-year-old woman who was jailed last week for four years for video reports from Wuhan during her lengthy detention.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently pulled out the unproven statement “that the pandemic probably started at several points around the world”.