World Health Organisation (WHO) investigators have been denied access to Wuhan – the city largely thought to be where the coronavirus originated in late 2019 – by Chinese authorities, as another area in Hubei province goes into "wartime" mode over a new outbreak.
According to reports, Beijing is avoiding the independent WHO probe – expected to take between four and five weeks – in a bid to evade being held accountable for the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide.
Despite a member of the 10-person team telling the BBC the inquiry isn't about finding a "guilty country" but to understand how similar pandemics could be avoided, Chinese officials are yet to finalise permission for their arrivals.
"Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team's arrival in China," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters yesterday at a press conference in Geneva.
"I'm very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute.
"I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials and I have once again made it clear the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team."
The investigation comes as the Chinese province of Hubei plunged into "wartime" mode to combat an outbreak of 59 cases in the last three days, thought to be linked to gatherings.
Officials have launched mass testing for the city's 11 million residents and schools have been shuttered, with the infections thought to be traced to social events like funerals and weddings in the village of Xiaguozhuang.
The village has now been sealed off, with any gatherings or visits between relatives now banned. Police have also reportedly set up roadblocks on routes out of the county.
Respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital Wang Guangfu told the Global Times that the possibility of an asymptomatic spreader "could not be ruled out".
Feng Zijian, an expert from the China CDC, told the publication the source of the infection is likely from Europe.
WHO INVESTIGATION DENIED
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he'd been "assured that China is speeding up the internal procedures for the earliest possible deployment", the WHO's Dr Michael Ryan said the officials had still not been given visa clearances.
One official was sent back home and the other is staying in a third country until they are granted entry.
"We trust and we hope that this is just a logistic and bureaucratic issue (and) will be resolved quickly," Ryan said.
"This is frustrating and as the Director-General has said this is disappointing. We trust in good faith we can solve these issues in coming hours and recommence the deployment of the team as urgently as possible."
China has repeatedly pushed aside rhetoric from leaders like US President Donald Trump that they're to blame for the pandemic.
Just days ago, the Global Times published a story about Wuhan hosting "more gatherings, celebrations" in the new year and telling the "West" to "get used to it".
"More big gatherings like the New Year celebrations, sports events and live concerts will be staged in Wuhan, which was the hardest-hit city in China by Covid-19, during 2021, and the world had better get used to it, Wuhan residents said, calling on some Westerners to save their fellow countrymen following Chinese experiences rather than attacking Wuhan's gatherings with prejudice and hostility," the article read.
"When large crowds of Wuhan residents took to streets and launched balloons to celebrate the arrival of 2021 on New Year's Eve, in sharp contrast with what Western media called a ghost town like Times Square with roads closed but no live audience, some Westerners with jealous eyes were sarcastic about Wuhan."