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China blocks WHO team investigating coronavirus origins

World Health Organization investigators have been denied entry into China, despite Beijing agreeing to the probe in December.

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NOEL CELIS/GETTY

After months of negotiation, the Chinese Communist Party in December agreed to a World Health Organization probe into the origins of the coronavirus. That investigation is off to an awkward start, with members of the WHO team being denied entry into China. 

On Tuesday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva that Chinese officials have yet to grant clearance for the WHO investigators. Two members of the 10-person team were in transit to China as it became known that Chinese officials weren't let allowing them in the country. One has returned home, while another is temporarily staying in a different country. 

"Over the past 24 hours, members of the international scientific team on COVID-19 virus origins began traveling from their home countries to China," Ghebreyesus said. "Today we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team's arrival in China."

"I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment."

The first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei province, in Dec. 2019, but scientists don't know the precise origins of the virus. It's thought to have been carried from one animal species to another, probably originating from a bat and mutating along the way, before widespread transmission occurred through Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. 

Several governments, including those of the US, India and Australia, have called for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. In question is the practice of "wet markets" such as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many, often exotic species of animals are kept in close proximity to one another. These are thought to be breeding grounds for animal-to-animal transmission, where the coronavirus would have been able to rapidly mutate. Separately, there's the question of to what extent the Chinese government attempted to cover up the virus, and in doing so inadvertently allowed it to spread around the world. 

The WHO's investigation sought answers to the first issue. The WHO team plans to examine the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market (alongside other wet markets throughout Wuhan), visit nearby medical facilities and speak to the first recorded COVID-19 patients. The probe will then expand to regions across China.