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The head of the World Health Organisation says he is “disappointed” that Chinese officials haven’t finalised permissions for the arrival of team of experts into China to examine origins of COVID-19.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare critique of China, said members of the international scientific team began departing from their home countries over the last 24 hours as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government.

“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” he told a news 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 but had been in contact with senior Chinese officials,” he said.

Tedros said he had “made it clear” that the mission was a priority for the UN health agency and that he had been “assured that China is speeding up the internal procedures for the earliest possible deployment”.

“We are eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible,” he said.

The experts, drawn from around the world, are expected to visit the city of Wuhan that is suspected as the place that the coronavirus first emerged over a year ago.

Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said the deployment had been expected to start on Tuesday but that the needed approvals had not yet been granted, including for visa clearances.

Ryan said Tedros had “taken immediate action” and spoken with unspecified senior Chinese officials, and “has fully impressed upon them the absolute critical nature of this”.

“We hope that this is just a logistical and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly,” Ryan added.

The WHO chief met with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the pandemic was emerging early last year.