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Officials say WHO virus team could go to China this week, may include U.S.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A WHO-led international team of experts could go to China as early as this week to investigate the coronavirus outbreak, as agreed between the WHO chief and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and could include U.S. experts, a WHO spokesman said on Monday.

Separately, a senior U.S. health official told Reuters in Geneva that American medical experts could take part in the WHO-led technical mission, but that talks were still underway.

China accused the United States on Monday of whipping up panic over a fast-spreading coronavirus with travel restrictions and evacuations.

The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in Wuhan, capital of the central province of Hubei, rose to 361 as of Sunday, the National Health Commission said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week on return from Beijing that the international mission would be composed of WHO officials and possibly consultants.

Tedros, asked at the time specifically about U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar publicly calling for U.S. officials to be part of a WHO-led mission, said that countries should make “bilateral arrangements”.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, in response to a Reuters query on Monday, said: “A multidisciplinary mission of international experts to China will take place, possibly this week. Both China and WHO agreed on this mission.

“The mission is an international technical mission led by WHO. As such, CDC could be part of it,” he said, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The experts would have a range of specialisations, including epidemiology, laboratories, research and development, and would work with Chinese counterparts to help guide global response efforts, he said.

Colin McIff, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Health, told Reuters in Geneva on Monday at WHO headquarters, where he attended the agency’s Executive Board: “Those conversations are ongoing.

“I think that there will be information soon on that…Those talks are still happening, the WHO and the Chinese, and us and many others. But yes, I hope that will be settled soon, actually.”

Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told a news briefing last Friday where he was asked about any objection to U.S. participation, said: “We are not intentionally denying any kind of help from any particular country.”

China on Monday accused the United States of spreading fear by pulling its nationals out and restricting travel instead of offering significant aid.

Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a teleconference on Monday: “We have folks ready to go to China as soon as that offer is finalised. I understand there are still negotiations in process on that. Really, we’re waiting. As soon as we are allowed to go we will be there.

“We do have an expert already in the field as part of CDC’s continuing work with China and could be there immediately. We are still waiting for that invitation,” she said.

Reuters: Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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