The revelation sparked concern that the WHO was attempting to kowtow to China. The United States has quit the UN-agency, claiming its leadership under Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been biased in favour of Beijing’s initial cover-up, which cost lives.
Responding to questioning from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, WHO officials said they expected to also visit the lab in Wuhan, from where US President Donald Trump has claimed, without evidence, that the virus emerged.
Tedros told a news conference in Geneva that the two-person team sent to Beijing was only a preliminary one that was drawing up the terms of reference and conditions of access with Chinese officials.
“It was not their intention to start the study and they had no plans to travel to Wuhan,” he said.
“When then the group of international experts are put together then of course naturally they will travel to Wuhan to start the study because it’s the basics of inquiries like this to start their study from where the first report came.
Dr Mike Ryan, the director of WHO’s emergencies program said part of the preliminary mission the WHO officials did speak to workers at the Institute of Virology via video conference.
“We fully expect as part of any normal mission to Wuhan, that the local epidemiological, laboratory, clinicians would be fully engaged in the response,” he said.
“And we would expect as part of it to engage our scientific colleagues and collaborators at the Institute of Virology.”
In comments to the Financial Times, Liberal MP Dave Sharma criticised the WHO’s relationship with China.
“The international community is right to have serious concerns about the rigour and independence of the WHO’s early response to this pandemic, and its seeming wish to avoid offending Chin,” he said.
“If this allegation is proven, it is another disturbing incident of the WHO — which is charged with safeguarding global public health — putting the political sensitivities of a member state above the public health interests of the world, in the critical early stages of this pandemic. We are all now bearing the immense costs of such a policy.”
The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said it was unclear whether the virus had first originated in China, casting doubt on the views of health experts and foreign governments.
Wang said that while China was the first country to report its existence to the WHO, “it does not mean that the virus originated in China”.
Health authorities in Wuhan reported the first case of what turned out to be the new coronavirus in December, and the first known death linked to the virus in early January.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.