China said Wednesday it was still negotiating with the World Health Organization on the dates and itinerary for a visit by international experts looking into the origins of COVID-19, after the head of the agency criticized Beijing for not finalizing permissions for the mission.
China's position on the hunt for the origins of the pandemic "has always been open and responsible," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.
She said that China has a close co-operation with WHO. However, the dates and itinerary need to be finalized, she said.
"The origins problem is very complex. To ensure that the work of the global experts group in China is successful, we need to carry out the necessary procedures and relevant concrete plans. Currently, both sides are still in negotiations on this," Hua told a regular press briefing.
"I understand that it's not just a visa problem and the actual date and itinerary. Both sides are still in close communication."
China's disease experts are currently busy with multiple small-scale clusters and outbreaks reported in the past couple of weeks, she added.
"Our experts are wholeheartedly in the stressful battle to control the epidemic," she said.
WHO director-general 'very disappointed'
An international team of experts had been due to visit the central city of Wuhan in January, where the pandemic first appeared a year ago.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that members of the international scientific team began departing from their home countries over the last 24 hours as part of an arrangement between WHO and the Chinese government.
"Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team's arrival in China," Tedros said during a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
"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, but had been in contact with senior Chinese officials," he said.
The Chinese government has been strictly controlling all research at home into the origins of the virus, an Associated Press investigation found, and state-owned media have played up reports that suggest the virus could have originated elsewhere.
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