The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that two scientists on the UN team had already left their countries for Wuhan when they were told that Chinese officials had not approved the necessary permits to enter the country.
The arrangements were jointly agreed with China in advance.
“I am very disappointed with this news,” Tedros told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday. “I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials and have made clear once again that the mission is a priority for the World Health Organization and the international team.”
Tedros said the WHO was “keen to start the mission as soon as possible” and that he had received assurances that Beijing was speeding up internal procedures “for deployment as soon as possible.”
Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said there was a problem with the visas and that one of the team members had already returned home. The other was waiting to cross in a third country.
WHO officials have long been negotiating with Beijing to allow a team of global scientists to access key sites to investigate the origin of the virus – which was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019 – and the possible jump from an unknown host species to humans.
Ryan said the team hoped it was “just a logistical and bureaucratic issue” that could be resolved “in good faith in the coming hours and resume deployment of the team as soon as possible.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China has “always pursued an open, transparent and responsible attitude” on tracing the origins of the virus.
Hua said China had previously welcomed WHO experts to the country, and said the UN investigation team and Chinese experts “maintained frequent interactions”, including four video-conference meetings between October and December.
“In order to ensure the smooth operation of the international expert group coming to China, there is a need to implement the necessary measures and make relevant specific arrangements. The two sides are still negotiating about this,” Hua said.
They are “ready to go,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who heads the department of virology at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and is part of the investigation team bound for China.
Copmans said they were told that nothing was forbidden while in China, and they said that the team would work in cooperation with their Chinese colleagues “look at the data, talk to people with experience, and draw conclusions from what has been accomplished and what can be based on it.”
She said it was important to understand the origins of how the virus was transmitted to humans because “no country has no risk of disease emerging. It is something we need to understand, so that the whole world can prepare.”
“We really need to be patient, not judgmental,” Koopmans said. “It’s delicate work and it will take time.”
The United States and Australia led the charge in criticizing the way China handled the early stages of the epidemic, and accused Beijing of underestimating its severity and preventing an effective response until it is too late.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised China’s efforts in fighting the epidemic at home and abroad, saying the country had “launched a global emergency humanitarian campaign” and “helped build consensus on a global response to Covid-19.”
For months, China had been testing and disinfecting frozen products imported from abroad, fearing that the virus would return to the country in this way, even as experts continued to question this as a possible source of infection.
The World Health Organization says it is “very unlikely that people will catch Covid-19 from food or food packaging,” and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the risk is “believed to be very low”. Both insist that there is no evidence of such a transfer, and the countries have even threatened to file a case against China at the World Trade Organization over import restrictions.