The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday expressed dismay over China blocking the entry of an international team of scientists to investigate the origin of the coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN health agency, told a news conference that two members had already left their home countries for Wuhan, the first epicentre of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, when they were informed that Chinese officials had not approved necessary permissions to enter the country.
“I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two members have already begun their journeys, and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” said Ghebreyesus. “But I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials. And I have once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team,” he added.
Here’s the timeline of events leading to China blocking WHO’s team:
December 2019: The WHO picked up a media report about a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause emerging in China’s Wuhan.
January 2020: The virus outbreak was identified as a novel coronavirus and China shared its genetic sequence with the UN health agency. Preliminary studies suggested that the bats could be the source since the coronavirus present in bats has a genome that is 96 per cent identical to the novel coronavirus. However, there has not been any concrete evidence to corroborate it.
The United States declared a public health emergency after the country reported its first few cases of the novel coronavirus. US President Donald Trump issued an executive order to block the entry of foreign nationals travelling from China.
February: The Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) named the virus SARS-CoV-2, noting that it was a variant of the coronavirus that caused an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. The WHO started referring to the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 as Covid-19 to avoid “unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some population.” The health agency also said that it followed the best practices in naming the disease to minimise “unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”
March: The WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, urging countries to take immediate and aggressive action. Trump launched a scathing attack on China and said the world is paying a “very big price” for covering-up the facts on coronavirus. Ignoring the appeal from the WHO, the US president kept calling Covid-19 as “China virus” or “Chinese virus”.
April: The US, which was the biggest contributor to the WHO, threatened to withhold funds, accusing the UN body of being China-centric and giving “faulty recommendation”. Other top US officials, including secretary of state Mike Pompeo, alleged that China delayed in sharing accurate information on the novel coronavirus. The US and Australia were one of the first countries to demand an independent inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus outbreak. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the call for an inquiry was reasonable not meant to target any country. Australia’s demand triggered a sharp response from China, leading to a decline in their bilateral relations.
May: Australia’s major push for an investigation into the origin of the virus outbreak and the response of the WHO gained huge traction and the European Union drafted a resolution seeking an independent probe. The WHO chief welcomed the proposed resolution and said that such evaluation must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith.
Member states of the WHO adopted the resolution by consensus at the World Health Assembly (WHA) calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to the virus outbreak and an inquiry into the actions of the WHO and “timelines pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic”. China voiced strong objection to the resolution, saying it was premature to launch a probe into the origin of Covid-19.
Speaking at the largely virtual WHA, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Beijing supports a comprehensive review of the global response to the pandemic, but only after Covid-19 is brought under control. He asserted that China has been open and transparent about the virus outbreak from the beginning and will support a probe if it is conducted in an “objective and impartial manner.”
June: China punished Australia’s beef producers and barley farmers in apparent retaliation and asked Chinese students to reconsider studying in that country. After Australia’s exports were hit following its strong criticism of China’s handling of coronavirus, Morrison said that he would not cave to coercion by trading values. “We are an open trading nation, mate, but I’m never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes,” the Australian prime minister told the radio station 2GB.
July: China agreed to allow a team of experts led by the WHO to visit the country to trace the origin of Covid-19. “After consultation, the Chinese government has agreed that the World Health Organization will send a team of experts to Beijing to trace the origin of Covid-19,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijiantold told a press briefing.
December: The WHO announced that a team of international experts, looking into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2, will travel to China in the first week of January. Dr Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the UN agency, said that there will be quarantine arrangements for the team and they will later visit the suspected site of the virus outbreak in Wuhan. “The purpose of the mission is to go to the original point at which human cases were detected and that we fully expect to do that,” he said, adding that the team will not be supervised by Chinese officials.
January 2021: China denied necessary permission to the team of scientists to enter the country. After the WHO chief publicly expressed disappointment in a rare rebuke to Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told the BBC that there might be “some misunderstanding” and “there’s no need to read too much into it”.