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Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the novel coronavirus in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 6, 2020.

DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

An advance team of international experts led by the World Health Organization (WHO) has left for Beijing to help investigate China’s coronavirus epidemic, the Geneva-based agency said on Sunday.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made a trip to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers in late January, returned with an agreement on sending an international mission.

But it has taken nearly two weeks to get the government’s green light on its composition, which was not announced, other than to say that WHO veteran Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert, was heading it.

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“I’ve just been at the airport seeing off members of an advance team for the @WHO-led #2019nCoV international expert mission to #China, led by Dr Bruce Aylward, veteran of past public health emergencies,” Tedros said in a tweet from Geneva.

Dr. Sylvie Briand, who accompanied Tedros last month and stayed behind for talks with top Chinese health officials, told Reuters last week that they were discussing a list of experts with China.

“Because it is a joint mission, they need to be on board, it’s not just an international group going there. We have about 15 people,” said Briand, director of Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness at WHO.

China raised the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak to 811 on Sunday, passing the number killed globally by the SARS epidemic, as authorities made plans for millions of people returning to work after an extended Lunar New Year break.

The virus, which has spread to two dozen countries, has killed some 2% of more than 37,550 cases worldwide, with 99 per cent of infections in China, WHO figures show.

The WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency on Jan. 30, days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, epicentre of the virus that emerged in December in a seafood market.

Tedros said on Saturday that he hoped the team would include experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

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“It has to be meaningful on the ground,” Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown Law, said in an interview in Geneva this week.

Gostin called for a “genuine partnership with transparent flows of information and accountability for the response,” adding that there should be a strong CDC presence.

“CDC has got no peer in terms of its experience and technical expertise in dealing with international outbreaks,” he said.

“But the other benefit is the smart diplomacy, what it could signal is that despite all of our differences in ideology, trade, politics, that when faced with a common threat to humanity, we come together as a human community to tackle it,” Gostin said.

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