WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said two scientists on the United Nations team had already left their home countries for Wuhan when they were told that Chinese officials had not approved the necessary permissions to enter the country.
The arrangements had been 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 I have once again made clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team.”
Tedros said WHO was “eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible” and that he had been given assurances that Beijing was speeding up the internal procedure for “the earliest possible deployment.”
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program said there was an issue with visas and one team member had already returned home. The other was waiting in transit in a third country.
WHO officials have long been negotiating with Beijing to allow a team of global scientists access to key sites to investigate the origin of the virus — first detected in Wuhan in December 2019 — and its likely jump from an unidentified host species to humans.
Ryan said the team hoped it was “just a logistical and bureaucratic issue” that can be resolved in “good faith in the coming hours and recommence the deployment of the team as soon as possible.”
The United States and Australia have led the charge in criticizing China’s handling of the initial stages of the pandemic, accusing Beijing of downplaying its severity and preventing an effective response until too late.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised China’s anti-pandemic efforts at home and abroad, saying that the country “launched an emergency global humanitarian campaign” and “helped build consensus on a global response to Covid-19.”
For months, China has been testing and disinfecting frozen products imported from overseas, over fears the virus could reenter the country that way, even as experts remain skeptical about this as a potential source of infection.
WHO says it is “highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging,” and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the risk is “thought to be very low.” Both insist there is no evidence of such transmission, and countries have even threatened to bring a case against China at the World Trade Organization over import restrictions.