BEIJING -- Experts from the World Health Organization are due to arrive in China Thursday for a long-anticipated investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the government said Monday.
The experts will meet with Chinese counterparts, the National Health Commission said in a one-sentence statement that gave no other details. It wasn't clear whether the experts will travel to the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.
Negotiations for the visit have long been underway. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week expressed disappointment over delays, saying members of the international scientific team departing from their home countries had already started on their trip as part of an arrangement between WHO and the Chinese government.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China approved the visit following consultations between the sides and called it an opportunity to "exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on the tracing of the origin of the new coronavirus."
"Along with continuous changes in the epidemic situation, our knowledge of the virus deepens, and more early cases are discovered," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing, adding that the search for the origin is likely to involve "multiple countries and localities."
China's government has strictly controlled all research at home into the origins of the virus, an Associated Press investigation found, while state-owned media have played up fringe theories that suggest the virus could have originated elsewhere.
The AP investigation found that China's government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus's origins. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research be approved by a new task force managed by China's Cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by the AP.
The culture of secrecy is believed to have delayed warnings about the pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with WHO and hampered early testing. There was considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, the AP has found.
Australia and other countries have called for an investigation into the origins of the virus, prompting angry responses from Beijing.
There was no immediate comment from WHO on Monday's announcement, but U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric had earlier told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "is fully supportive of Dr. Tedros' and WHO's efforts to get a team in there."
"It's very important that as the WHO is in the lead in fighting the pandemic, that it also has a leading role in trying to look back at the roots of this pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next one," Dujarric said. "We very much hope" that China's reported comments that it is working with the WHO and looking for a smooth visit "will happen."
The virus' origins have been the source of intense speculation, much of it centered around the likelihood that it was carried by bats and passed to humans through an intermediary species sold as food or medicine in traditional Chinese markets.
NEW OUTBREAKS IN ASIA
Meanwhile, Chinese health authorities said scores more people tested positive in Hebei province bordering Beijing.
The outbreak focused on the cities of Shijiazhuang and Xingtai is one of China's most serious in recent months and comes amid measures to curb the spread during next month's Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities have called on citizens not to travel, ordered schools closed a week early and conducted testing on a large scale.
The outbreak has raised concern because of its proximity to the nation's capital. Both Shijiazhuang and Xingtai have ordered millions of people tested, suspended public transportation and restricted residents to their communities or villages for a week. Parts of the province are under lockdown and interprovincial travel has been largely cut off, with those entering Beijing to work having to show proof of employment and a clean bill of health.
Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region:
• The Japanese Health Ministry found a coronavirus variant in people arriving from Brazil that's different from the ones in Britain and South Africa. It was found in four people tested at the airport, the ministry said Sunday. Japan was working with other nations, the WHO and other medical experts to analyze the variant. Its behavior and the illness it causes are not yet known. The Tokyo area has been under a state of emergency since Friday.
• South Korea's president said the government will offer vaccinations to everyone free of charge in phased steps. President Moon Jae-in made the comments in his New Year's address Monday. He reaffirmed a government announcement that inoculations will start in February.
• Sri Lanka partially reopened schools under strict health guidelines Monday after nearly three months. But the government decided not to do so for schools in the capital, Colombo, and suburbs because the majority of new cases have been reported there.
• Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysia's health care system is at a "breaking point" as he reintroduced movement curbs. Starting Wednesday, he said, Kuala Lumpur, the government administrative capital Putrajaya and five other states will be placed under near-lockdown for two weeks. The manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantation sectors will be allowed to operate with strict guidelines.
Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.