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China finally agreed Monday to let a team of World Health Organization scientists visit the country to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic — after more than a year and almost 2 million deaths worldwide.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week said he was “very disappointed” when China blocked the scientists’ planned entry, breaking the news after some had already started their travels.
But both China and the WHO confirmed Monday that they had agreed to allow in the team of 10 experts who will arrive Thursday.
“We are pleased that an international team of scientists – distinguished experts from 10 institutions and countries – are commencing their travel to China to engage in and review scientific research with their Chinese counterparts on the origins of the COVID-19 virus,” Tedros said.
Beijing sought to downplay the earlier delay, which foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying blamed on a “misunderstanding,” according to Agence France-Presse.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China had approved the visit following consultations between the sides, and called it an opportunity to “exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on the tracing of the origin of the new coronavirus.”
“Along with continuous changes in the epidemic situation, our knowledge of the virus deepens, and more early cases are discovered,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, adding that the search for the origin will likely involve “multiple countries and localities.”
The WHO experts will have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, and will start their research in Wuhan, the city where the deadly virus was first detected in late 2019, Tedros said.
However, it was not clear whether they would get to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the controversial lab that US officials have suggested could be the source for the contagion.
The institute’s deputy director, so-called “bat woman” Shi Zhengli, recently told the BBC she had been in communication with the WHO’s scientists and “personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome them” to visit the institute.
However, the lab’s press office later insisted Zhengli was only speaking in a personal capacity and that her statements had not been approved.
The BBC also questioned whether the WHO’s 10 scientists would even examine whether the novel coronavirus could have leaked from the lab — noting that one member of the team, British zoologist Peter Daszak, has called it a “conspiracy theory” that is “pure baloney.”