Beijing, after initially blocking requests from the United States, has agreed to permit authorities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take part in an international investigation of the global health crisis caused by the rapidly spreading Wuhan coronavirus.
The World Health Organization officially declared an international health emergency Thursday as the death toll in China mounted to 171 with more than 8,000 infected. WHO officials said the designation was not meant to be a “vote of no confidence” in the Chinese government’s handling of the crisis.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he was delighted that China had agreed to permit a team of CDC specialists to travel there.
“We’ve been very transparent about what we don’t know yet about this virus, which is we don’t know full information about its contagiousness, about its severity profile,” Mr. Azar said on Fox News.
“We will accept the invitation to participate as part of the World Health Organization’s team of experts that will deploy to China to assist Chinese experts on the ground to actually get ground troops to study this virus, get all the information to both prevent the spread further in China but also global spread of this virus,” he added.
Studying the origins and characteristics of the virus at the epicenter of the outbreak, the metropolis of Wuhan, will be critical to understanding how to fight the virus. A study by 35 health specialists, most of them Chinese, made public Thursday said the Wuhan virus is closely related to a SARS-like virus derived from bats.
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“Although our phylogenetic analysis suggests that bats might be the original host of this virus, an animal sold at the seafood market in Wuhan might represent an intermediate host facilitating the emergence of the virus in humans,” according to a report published in the journal The Lancet.
A day before Mr. Azar announced that China would allow CDC specialists to visit, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declined to say whether any Americans would be allowed to join the international team that the Geneva-based agency was sending to China. The CDC is widely regarded as one of the most experienced in dealing with deadly coronaviruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Mr. Azar revealed Tuesday that the Trump administration had been asking China since Jan. 6 for permission to send the CDC team and suggested the offer was rebuffed. He did not explain why but said he hoped the problem would be resolved.
An HHS official declined to say why the Chinese delayed a decision to allow U.S. specialists to join the international team. “We are working closely with WHO as they identify experts for the team, and HHS stands ready to support this effort,” the official said.
Dr. Tedros, who visited China last week, repeatedly praised Beijing for “transparency” in handling the outbreak despite the failure of Chinese authorities to provide accurate and timely information about the virus, which causes pneumonialike symptoms and has a high death rate. Some critics have said the U.N. public health agency has been too supportive of the Chinese. In 2006, China lobbied the United Nations and WHO to name Margaret Chan, a Chinese-Canadian doctor, as director.
Ms. Chan later named the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Peng Liyuan, as a WHO goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and AIDS, The Wall Street Journal reported. Ms. Peng was a well-known singer for the People’s Liberation Army entertainment troupe.
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Dr. Tedros, who met with Mr. Xi in Beijing this week, was effusive Thursday in praising China.
“China identified the pathogen in record time and shared it immediately, which led to the rapid development of diagnostic tools,” he said. “They are completely committed to transparency.”
Others note that Chinese secrecy and local officials’ fears of upsetting senior leaders in Beijing delayed responses to illness from the virus, whose origin remains a mystery. The first public announcement of an outbreak was delayed until Dec. 8, and Wuhan’s seafood market was not shut down until Jan. 1.
The delay allowed those infected with the virus to circulate, including among the tens of millions of Chinese who traveled during the Lunar New Year holiday last week.
State media propaganda sought to stanch criticism of the Communist Party-led government that was circulating on Chinese social media.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Wednesday night that President Trump and his top advisers had discussed the coronavirus crisis in an Oval Office meeting and accepted an “invitation” from Beijing to dispatch “our very best CDC experts” to China.
“It’s the first time we’ve made that decision, [and] we’re happy to do it …,” Mr. Kudlow told Fox Business. “We want to help out in any way we can. We have a lot of very smart people who know how to deal with these public health issues.”