China prevents entry to two members of the WHO team

Hong Kong (CNN) — Two members of a World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the covid-19 pandemic were unable to fly to China after failing a coronavirus antibody test.

An international team of 13 scientists was due to land in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in late 2019, on Thursday. But two members of that team remain in Singapore, the WHO said in a series of tweets, after they “tested positive for IgM antibodies.”

IgM antibodies are among the first potential signs of a coronavirus infection, but could also appear in someone who has been vaccinated or previously infected (but is no longer a carrier) of the virus. False positives are also possible with such tests.

Since November 2020, travelers to China must show negative IgM antibody test and PCR test before being allowed to enter.

The scientists in question are being retested, having previously been tested and tested negative for coronavirus multiple times, the organization said. He added that scientists who were able to travel to China “will begin their work immediately during the two-week quarantine of the protocol for international travelers.”

At a regular press conference on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the country “will strictly follow the relevant epidemic prevention regulations and requirements and provide the corresponding support and facilities for experts from China. the WHO to come to China to carry out international cooperation measures in tracking the origin of the virus.

When asked about the two scientists who were denied entry, Zhao declined to comment and instructed reporters to ask “the relevant authorities.”

State broadcaster CGTN reported Thursday that the WHO team “underwent both throat swabs and serum antibody tests at the airport” upon arrival in the country.

Delayed trip

This is the second delay for the WHO team, which was due to arrive in China earlier this month, but was prevented from flying there by authorities, prompting a rare reprimand from the United Nations agency.

“I am very disappointed with this news,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time. “I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials and have once again made it clear that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team.”

Tedros added that the WHO was “anxious to get the mission underway as soon as possible” and had been given assurances that Beijing was speeding up the internal procedure for “the earliest possible deployment”.

That deployment began this week as most of the team arrived in Wuhan, though they will be limited in what they can do until they serve a mandatory two-week quarantine.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who heads the Virology Department at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam and is part of the research team heading to China, said earlier this month that they were “ready to go.”

Koopmans said they had been told that nothing is forbidden while in China and that the team will work collaboratively with their Chinese colleagues “looking at the data, talking to experienced people and concluding what has been done and what can be developed.”

He said it was important to understand the origins of how the virus made the leap to humans because “there is no country that is not at risk of disease emergence. It is something that we must understand, so that the whole world can prepare.

“We really need to be patient and not judge. It’s meticulous work, it will take time, ”Koopmans said.

Political tensions

The United States and Australia have led criticism of China’s handling in the initial stages of the pandemic, accusing Beijing of downplaying its severity and preventing an effective response until it was too late.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the global pandemic and announced that his country would end its relationship with the WHO, arguing that China had not adequately shared the information it had on the coronavirus and that it it had lobbied WHO to “fool the world.”

The United States has demanded transparency in the operations of the WHO in China. In November, Garrett Grigsby, an official with the US Department of Health and Human Services, told the WHO assembly that the terms of the investigation into China “were not negotiated in a transparent manner” and “the investigation itself seems be incompatible with his mandate.

A trove of confidential documents obtained by CNN last year from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Hubei province, where the virus was first detected in 2019, shows how Chinese officials gave the world more optimistic data from those who had access internally, by not initially reporting the number of cases during the early stages of the outbreak.

As countries around the world grapple with new outbreaks of infections, China appears to be on the mend. Last month, the country posted positive economic growth for the second consecutive quarter.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi praised China’s anti-pandemic efforts at home and abroad, saying that the country “launched an emergency global humanitarian campaign” and “helped build consensus on a global response to COVID-19. 19 ».

As the WHO team prepared to embark, Chinese officials and state media have questioned the origins of the virus, with Wang himself saying that “more and more research suggests that the pandemic was likely caused by separate outbreaks in various locations. of the world”.

CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.

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