- Head of WHO said he was ‘disappointing’ the experts did not yet have permission
- A 10-person team of WHO experts are expected to arrive in China this week
- They have been given the task of investigating the origins of the coronavirus
- Mission comes a year after Covid-19 outbreak started, believed to be from China
- Origins remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture
The news comes amid growing suspicions of a cover-up in the country where Covid-19 is believed to have originated at the end of 2019, although its origins remain bitterly contested as China remains determined to control the narrative.
The head of the World Health Organisation says he was ‘disappointed’ that Chinese officials have not finalised permissions for the arrival of the team of experts.
A year after the outbreak started, WHO experts were due in China for a highly politicised visit to explore the origins of the coronavirus, in a trip trailed by accusations of cover-ups, conspiracy and fears of a whitewash.
The WHO said China granted permission for a visit by its experts, with a 10-person team expected to arrive this week – but before most could even begin their journeys they faced roadblocks, with Beijing yet to grant them entry.
The WHO’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said Tuesday that the problem was a lack of visa clearances, adding that he hoped it was a ‘logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly.’
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare critique of Beijing, says members of the international scientific team have begun over the last 24 hours to leave from their home countries to China as part of an arrangement between WHO and the Chinese government.
‘Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,’ he said at a news conference Tuesday in Geneva.
‘I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute,’ Tedros told reporters in Geneva, in a rare rebuke of Beijing from the UN body.
He added that he has ‘been in contact with senior Chinese officials’ and that he had ‘once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for the WHO.
‘I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure of the earliest possible deployment. We’re eager to get the mission under way as soon as possible,’ he said.
Earlier this week Chinese authorities had refused to confirm the exact dates and details of the visit, a sign of the enduring sensitivity of their mission.
Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, before seeping beyond China’s borders to wreak global havoc, costing over 1.8 million lives and eviscerating economies.
But its origins remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture from the international community – as well as obfuscation from Chinese authorities determined to keep control of its virus narrative.
The WHO team has promised to focus on the science, specifically how the coronavirus jumped from animals – believed to be bats – to humans.
‘This is not about finding a guilty country or a guilty authority,’ Fabian Leendertz from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central disease control body who will be among the team to visit, told AFP new agency in late December.
‘This is about understanding what happened to avoid that in the future, to reduce the risk.’
But doubt has been cast over what the WHO mission can reasonably expect to achieve and the state pressure they will face, raising fears that the mission will serve to rubber stamp China’s official story, not challenge it.
The upcoming visit will not be the first time Covid-19 has brought WHO teams to China. A mission last year looked at the response by authorities rather than the virus origins, with another in the summer laying the groundwork for the upcoming probe.
But this time the WHO will wade into a swamp of competing interests, stuck between accusatory Western nations and a Chinese leadership determined to show that its secretive and hierarchical political system served to stem, not spread, the outbreak.
It is unclear who the experts will be able to meet when they arrive in Wuhan to retrace the initial days and weeks of the pandemic.
Inside China, whistleblowers have been silenced and citizen journalists jailed, including a 37-year-old woman imprisoned last week for four years over video reports from the city during its prolonged lockdown.
Outside, responsibility for the virus has been weaponized.
From the outset, US President Donald Trump used the virus as political bludgeon against big power rival China.
He accused Beijing of trying to hide the outbreak of what he dubbed the ‘China virus’ and repeated unsubstantiated rumours it leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Trump then pulled the US out of the WHO, accusing it of going soft on China, a nation with which he was also engaged in a bitter trade war.
Critics say that blizzard of accusations sought to divert attention from Washington’s bungled response to a crisis which has so far killed more than 355,000 Americans.
Without them, said one, ‘a lot of these situations that we had in January 2020 would not have played out the way it did.’
‘It is the geopolitics that… put the world in this situation,’ Ilona Kickbusch, of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told AFP.
China has since deftly reframed its version of events, hailing its ‘extraordinary success’ in curbing the pandemic within its borders and rebooting its economy.
Beijing now says it will ride to the rescue of poorer nations, promising cheap vaccines and seeding doubt that the virus even originated in China.
Beijing has long been accused of under-reporting its coronavirus numbers, but the data gives an idea of the scale of the problem for the first time.
For example, on February 10 China reported 2,478 new cases of the virus across the entire country – but leaked data shows that, on the same date, Hubei province alone logged 5,918 cases.
Meanwhile on March 7, Hubei was officially reporting a cumulative death toll of 2,986, but documents show it actually stood at 3,456.
The official figures, which were reported across the world, downplayed the severity of the outbreak at a time when world leaders were trying to devise their own response strategies – leaving many unprepared for what was to come.
China was able to use the figures and its authoritarian powers to lock down hard and early, all-but wiping the virus out and meaning its economy has grown this year, while under-prepared western democracies have seen their economies devastated.
Other discrepancies revealed in the data include February 17, when Hubei officially reported 93 deaths from the virus while the documents show a toll of 196.
On March 7, Hubei officially reported 83 cases, but 115 are recorded in the leaked papers.
Another report also records the deaths of six health care workers from coronavirus by February 10, which were never publicly disclosed.
Data also suggests that the number of cases recorded in 2019, when the virus first emerged, was 200.
Until now, China has only publicly acknowledged 44 cases in 2019 – which it reported to the WHO as ‘a pneumonia of unknown etiology’ on January 3.
The documents, comprising 117 pages, were handed to CNN by a whistleblower inside the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was at the epicentre of the outbreak.
The whistleblower described themselves as ‘a patriot’ who was ‘motivated to expose a truth that had been censored, and honor colleagues who had also spoken out.’
Alongside the true case and death tolls, the documents reveal for the first time that Hubei was in the midst of a major flu epidemic at the time coronavirus struck.
On March 7, Hubei province – where epicentre Wuhan was located – reported 83 new infections to the public. Leaked documents give a figure of 115
The province was reporting up to 20 times the normal number of seasonal flu cases in December 2019, centered in the cities of Yichang and Xianning.
Wuhan, where coronavirus would first emerge, was third worst-affected.
Data also shows that a large number of flu cases, including in Wuhan, were diagnosed as ‘unknown cause’ – dating a far back as December 2.
Researchers told CNN that it is possible some of these were mis-diagnosed coronavirus cases, but there is no way to know for sure because the data is simply not available.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, at Johns Hopkins University which has been at the forefront of tracking the virus, said: ‘They were only testing for what they knew.’
China claims it has done studies looking for cases of coronavirus in Wuhan before December 2019, but has been unable to find any.
While there is no suggestion that the outbreaks are linked, the flu epidemic likely left health officials stretched and unprepared for the emergence of a new illness.
The documents also reveal a shambles among China’s early testing regime, which contributed to the cases being under-reported.
According to the data, nucleic acid tests which were initially used to diagnose the virus only worked between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the time.