China supports probe into coronavirus: Xi Jinping

Turnaround comes as he defends his nation's handling of outbreak at global meet

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Jan 28, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

China supports a comprehensive probe into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, said President Xi Jinping yesterday, even as he defended his own country's handling of the outbreak for the first time at an international gathering.

A resolution pushed by the European Union and Australia for a review of the origin and spread of the coronavirus had started to gather international support when Mr Xi addressed the issue at the World Health Assembly's annual meeting in a video telecast yesterday.

China had previously opposed calls for such investigations from the United States and Australia, but Mr Xi indicated yesterday he would support an independent probe. "The work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and conducted in an objective and impartial manner," he said.

Beijing has been open, transparent and responsible, and quick to share the virus' genome sequence data with the world, said the Chinese leader.

"We've done everything in our power to support countries in need," he said.

As the outbreak, which started in the Chinese central city of Wuhan last December, has gone on to kill over 310,000 people and infected more than 4.8 million worldwide, China has come under increasing pressure.

World leaders, including Mr Xi, called for greater cooperation among nations, and more help to be provided to vulnerable nations such as those in Africa that have limited resources.

A vaccine, when successfully developed, will be made a global public good, vowed President Xi. "This will be China's contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries," he said.

The Chinese leader also pledged US$2 billion (S$2.84 billion) to support the global Covid-19 response over two years, and to set up an international humanitarian hub with the United Nations in China to ensure a smooth supply chain for essential goods.

Several international leaders spoke up to support the WHO but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put the problem starkly.

"We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity in our response to Covid-19," he said as he opened the meeting.

"Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price," he said, adding that many nations have ignored the recommendations of the WHO.

Meanwhile, apart from the call to examine the international response to the crisis, which Mr Xi addressed in his speech, the other potentially contentious issue which will not be addressed will be Taiwan's exclusion from the international health body.

Nearly 15 countries, including Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, had written to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, asking for Taiwan's participation to be included in the agenda.

Beijing had allowed it to attend the World Health Assembly as an observer between 2009 and 2016, but blocked the island from participation after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has refused to accept the one-China principle, came to power.

Yesterday, Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said "countries want to use the limited time available to concentrate on ways of containing the pandemic".

Even as health ministers from 194 countries deliberate over how to deal with the pandemic at the two-day virtual meeting, some European countries are coming out of months of lockdowns.

Shops and restaurants in Italy reopened yesterday after 10 weeks. Visitors queued up outside St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, observing social distancing rules.

Meanwhile, Greece allowed visitors back at the Acropolis and Spain said it will lift border controls by the end of June.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2020, with the headline China supports probe into coronavirus: Xi Jinping. Subscribe