BEIJING: The World Health Organization (WHO) has given Beijing a list of global experts to be part of the international investigation team to be sent to China to probe the origin of the coronavirus and is awaiting its approval, according to a media report on Thursday.
In May, the annual meeting of World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the Geneva-based WHO currently headed by India, passed a unanimous resolution to probe the origin of the virus.
China also backed the resolution.
In August, a two-member team from the WHO which visited China completed the groundwork for the probe into the animal source and reservoirs of the COVID-19 which first emerged in Wuhan in December last year and later became a global pandemic, creating the worst health crisis across the world.
On Monday, WHO Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director Mike Ryan told a special meeting of the organisation’s executive board that it has selected expert candidates from around the world for the mission and it was now up to Beijing to say who would be on the international team and when they would enter China, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
“A list of candidates has been submitted to the Chinese authorities for their consideration and for next steps in order to deploy that team,” Ryan told the advisory group of member state representatives, without saying when the list was sent.
At Monday’s meeting, representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Australia called on the WHO to send the team and share more details about the mission, the report said.
“Transparency around this work is critical, we are keen to see further information on the membership of the international team and its programme of work,” Australian associate health secretary and WHO executive board member Caroline Edwards said.
However, WHO could not send a team into a member state without its permission, the Post report.
“If, therefore, China would condition entry of an expert group on vetting the expert list, then from an international legal perspective, the WHO’s hands are bound,” Ayelet Berman, senior research fellow at the Centre for International Law at the National University Singapore told the Post.
WHO faced stringent criticism, especially from US President Donald Trump, who accused it of being a puppet of China for not acting in time to halt the spread of the COVID-19 when it broke out in Wuhan.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 23, Trump also attacked WHO saying that it is ‘virtually controlled by China’.
Besides halting funding for WHO, the Trump administration formally notified the UN of its decision to withdraw the US from the WHO, breaking off ties with the global health body amidst the raging coronavirus pandemic.
The US has also accused the WHO of siding with China on the outbreak of the virus, alleging the health body misled the world resulting in over a million deaths.
Besides denying Trump’s allegations that the virus has escaped from a bio-lab in Wuhan, China also refuted allegations that it emanated from a wet market in the city from bats or pangolins before infecting humans.
For its part, China sought to shift the blame saying that the virus may have originated elsewhere in the world and surfaced in Wuhan.
Analysts said WHO mission’s legitimacy would depend on who was involved and how it was run, particularly after criticism that it had pandered to China during the early weeks of the outbreak.
The WHO’s lack of authority to force through its list of experts as final means “deference to Chinese authorities is hard-wired into this mission,” according to David Fidler, an adjunct senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US.
“Given the geopolitics of the pandemic, this back and forth between the WHO and China will refuel criticism of both the WHO and China and darken the cloud already hanging over the organisation and its relationship with the Chinese government,” he told the Post.
Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs and Centre for European Studies at Renmin University, was quoted by the Post as saying that the expert team should be decided by the WHO based on professional background to depoliticise the investigation.
According to the Johns Hopkins University data, there are over 36 million COVID-19 cases and over 1 million deaths due to the disease globally.
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