EU to propose investigation into coronavirus origins, Australia says

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote to all Group of 20 leaders to create support for the investigation.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote to all Group of 20 leaders to create support for the investigation.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - The European Union will put forward a proposal to the World Health Assembly calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus, according to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The assembly will consider the proposal at its May 18 meeting, Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday (May 5). He added that he had written to all Group of 20 leaders this week in his bid to create support for the investigation into how the virus started and spread.

Australia's previous calls for the probe have raised the ire of China, its largest trading partner.

In the US, President Donald Trump has accused Beijing of deliberately mishandling an outbreak that has killed more than 4,600 Chinese citizens to damage him politically and promised a "conclusive" report on the virus's origins.

"What's really important is that we have a proper review, an independent review which looks into the sources of these things in a transparent way," Mr Morrison said on Tuesday.

The inquiry would help the world deal with the emergence of the next virus that has "pandemic potential," he said, adding that his nation's health experts believed it originated in a wildlife wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The meeting of the World Health Organisation’s decision-making body later this month is shaping up as a test of China’s diplomatic standing in the wake of the pandemic.

In addition to calls for an independent probe, nations such as the US are also pushing to reinstate Taiwan – which Beijing views as a province – as an observer to the assembly. 

China last month dismissed calls for Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blaming its government for "reckless political manoeuvre".

"Their real intention is to seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic," he said on April 9. "We are firmly opposed to that. Their scheme will never succeed."

Mr Geng Shuang, another Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, last month also blasted calls for an independent probe into the virus origin as "political manoeuvring."

"It will disrupt international cooperation in fighting the pandemic and goes against people’s shared aspiration," he said on April 23. 

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said an independent tribunal with powers similar to United Nations weapons inspectors should be allowed to enter Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged late last year.

Canberra has further stoked China’s ire by calling for the end of wildlife sales in so-called wet markets, one of which was one of the first places in Wuhan where the virus was detected. 

Mr Trump has also been ramping up pressure on China, and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo claimed this week there was "enormous evidence" that the coronavirus outbreak sprung from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan.

Chinese state media on Monday unleashed a torrent of criticism against Mr Pompeo, calling him "evil" and a liar.