May 18, 2020 / 6:59 AM / 15 days ago

Australia welcomes growing support for COVID-19 inquiry at WHO meeting

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A resolution pushed by the European Union and Australia calling for a review into the origins and spread of the novel coronavirus has the support of 116 countries at the World Health Assembly, almost enough for it to pass, a document showed.

The resolution on the coronavirus will be put forward on Tuesday if it gains backing from two-thirds of the 194 members of the assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization.

China has strongly opposed calls for an international investigation into the pandemic but appeared more amenable to the resolution on Monday.

A copy of the draft resolution seen by Reuters on Monday showed support from 116 members was locked in, although Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said negotiations were going on and she did not want to pre-empt the outcome.

The resolution was “an important part of the conversation we started, and I am very grateful to the efforts of those in the European Union and those many drafters who have been part of the negotiations for the past few weeks”, Payne told reporters.

The resolution was comprehensive and included a call for “an examination of the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus”, she said.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman played-down Australia’s involvement in the resolution, attributing it solely to the EU, and said China was consulted on the content of the draft.

“China, along with other countries, took an active part in these consultations and agreed on the unifying of the text,” the ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told a regular briefing in Beijing, though he stopped short of saying China supported the measure.

More than 4.64 million people are reported to have been infected around the world with the coronavirus that emerged in central China late last year. More than 310,000 have died.

Australia - which has reported only 99 deaths - says it wants to prevent a repeat of the pandemic that has paralysed economic activity around the world and is not looking to cast blame.

“I hope that China will participate,” Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Monday as he welcomed building support for an inquiry.

‘SIGNIFICANT EVENT’

Among the co-sponsors of the resolution are India, Japan, South Korea, an African group of 47 member countries, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Britain and Canada.

The resolution calls for “scientific and collaborative field missions” to trace the path of transmission, saying this would reduce the risk of similar events.

It also says a review should start at the “earliest appropriate moment”.

Some countries still suffering high daily death tolls from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have said it is too soon for an investigation.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a media conference it was “natural that after such a significant event, we would want to take a look at what we should all have learned from this experience”.

Birmingham said he has been unable to schedule a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Zhong Shan, to discuss trade friction, including China’s suspension of Australian beef imports and a dumping investigation into Australian barley that could see an 80% tariff imposed on Tuesday.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he had not had a reply to his request for a call with his Chinese counterpart.

In Beijing, Zhong said the two countries were in communication.

“If the Australian Trade Minister wishes to contact his counterpart he should do it through the appropriate channel,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao said.

Last month, China’s ambassador to Australia warned of a boycott by Chinese consumers if Australia pursued an investigation, prompting Australian ministers to accuse China of “economic coercion”.

Reporting by Kirsty Needham, additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel

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