WHO Team Denied Entrance To China While Hebei Deals With Virus Outbreak

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, rebuked the Chinese government for blocking a team of WHO researchers investigating the origins of the coronavirus from entering the country. Team members were preparing to depart for China—two researchers were already en route—when they learned that their visas had not been approved by Chinese authorities. At CNN, Helen Regan and Sandi Sidhu detailed the back-and-forth between Dr. Tedros and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying, and the breakdown in WHO-China relations it reflected:

“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.”

[…] In a press briefing Wednesday, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said China had “always held an open, transparent and responsible attitude” on tracing the origin of the virus.

[…] In order to ensure that the international expert group that comes to China can work smoothly, it is needed to fulfill the necessary procedures and make relevant specific arrangements. The two sides are still negotiating about this,” said Hua. [Source]

Early on in the epidemic, the WHO came under fire from the U.S. government and others for apparently acquiescing to undue Chinese influence in its reporting on the virus. Since the initial outbreak, the Chinese government has attempted to maintain tight control of information surrounding the coronavirus. Citizen-journalists who reported on the crisis have been jailed or disappeared, while propaganda authorities have issued numerous directives restricting coverage. State media organs have implied that the virus originated abroad. During the first days of January, Chinese social media was rife with speculation that coronavirus might have been introduced to China through imported auto parts, until the chief epidemiologist of China’s CDC shot down the theory. Research into the origins of the virus is so politically fraught that the central government has mandated that all scientific research into its origins pass a State Council review before publication. At The Washington Post, Emily Rauhala and Lily Kuo interviewed the head of the WHO’s investigative team and laid out the team’s research goals:

The team will start by revisiting the earliest coronavirus cases and reinterviewing people as it works backward, looking for clues, according to Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert and head of the mission.

The scientists will try to reconstruct what happened at the Huanan Seafood Market in central Wuhan, initially linked to the outbreak, retracing everything that went in and out of that market in November and December 2019, Ben Embarek said, including products, animals and goods. From there, the team will “triangulate” the results, trying to determine a possible source.

[…] Phelan noted that the scientists selected for the upcoming mission do not have a great deal of experience operating in China, where information is tightly controlled, and may not be well equipped to navigate choppy political waters.

The WHO, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, “needs more savvy diplomats.” [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Drew Hinshaw reported on the extraordinary nature of Dr. Tedro’s criticism:

The WHO rarely criticizes the national governments that fund its budget and elect its leaders. For its top official to call out China shows how the agency has struggled to get Beijing’s cooperation on important issues. Early on, in late January of last year, the WHO panel tasked with declaring a public health emergency expressed frustration that epidemiological data sent from China was too imprecise and paltry to act upon.

[…] “The WHO is a member state organization and they do rarely call them out unless behind-the-scenes efforts have really failed,” said Alexandra Phelan, a researcher at the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science & Security. “It does tell us that the lines of communication have broken down.”

[…] “This is the Chinese government wanting to perpetrate the argument that the virus started elsewhere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health security scholar at the University of Sydney, who helped write the international laws that govern the WHO. “They are very clearly on a mission to try and avert attention away from China being the source of the virus.” [Source]

China is currently dealing with a coronavirus outbreak in Hebei’s provincial capital Shijiazhuang, where local authorities have identified at least 117 cases. The province is now in “wartime mode.” Feng Zijian, an expert at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told CCTV, “The virus found in Hebei is not a local virus, and most likely it came from Europe. The number of patients is still increasing, indicating that the virus has spread for quite some time,” according to Global Times. Hubei officials have urged locals to cancel wedding feasts, after contact tracing revealed that one patient had attended three weddings. Officials from Beijing, which is adjacent to Hebei, have instituted measures to block Hebei residents from entering the capital, setting up highway checkpoints and cancelling train travel between the two cities. At The South China Morning Post, Jane Cai and Ji Siqi reported on Shijiazhuang’s lockdown measures:

The whole of Shijiazhuang, which has a population of 11 million, was placed under lockdown measures, with passenger train services suspended to prevent further spread of the virus, according to state news agency Xinhua. Flights and coach services to Beijing, 300km (186 miles) northeast of Shijiazhuang, were cancelled.

[…] Residents of Shijiazhuang rushed to supermarkets and emptied the shelves when rumours of a lockdown began to spread on Tuesday.

“Vegetables were basically sold out – I got there a bit late,” said Feng Shanshan, a resident who bought 567 yuan (US$88) of groceries on Tuesday night and posted the receipt on social media. [Source]

The outbreak in Hebei adds urgency to China’s vaccine efforts. China aims to vaccinate 50 million people before the February beginning of the Lunar New Year, when many people travel home. At The Washington Post, Eva Dou reported on China’s vaccination drive:

There’s urgency to complete these vaccinations before the Lunar New Year holiday period — often called the world’s largest annual human migration — which takes place Feb. 11-17. Last year, some 1.5 billion trips were made over the holiday in China, half the normal number, as people sheltered in place against the growing coronavirus outbreak.

[…] “We can’t require people to stay at home and not go out during Lunar New Year,” Shanghai infectious-disease expert Zhang Wenhong was quoted saying in the official People’s Daily on Saturday, even as he said controls may be necessary in higher-risk areas.

Millions in priority groups had received shots as part of an earlier “urgent use” push, before regulators gave the green light to a vaccine from Sinopharm, a state-owned drugmaker, last week. Now, vaccine doses are being rolled out by municipal authorities to all prioritized workers willing to take them, and they should begin to reach some other demographics by next month. [Source]


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