Top US diplomat Blinken criticises China, says 'need to get to the bottom' of Covid-19 origin

In a file photo taken on Jan 31, 2021, workers place barriers outside the closed Huanan Seafood wholesale market during a visit to Wuhan by members of the World Health Organisation team.
In a file photo taken on Jan 31, 2021, workers place barriers outside the closed Huanan Seafood wholesale market during a visit to Wuhan by members of the World Health Organisation team.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - China's failure to provide access to global health experts made the Covid-19 pandemic worse than it had to be, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday (April 11), and it was important to "get to the bottom" of the origin of the novel coronavirus.

The top US diplomat's sharp words underscored criticism from other members of the Biden administration over Beijing's lack of transparency in the crucial early days of the pandemic.

China did not give access to international experts or share information in real time to provide true transparency, Blinken said in an interview with NBC's Meet the Press.

As a result, the virus "got out of hand faster and with, I think, much more egregious results than it might otherwise," Blinken said.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on March 30 that data was withheld from WHO investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the pandemic.

A WHO report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, released at the time said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely" as a cause.

Tedros said the issue required further investigation.

The events highlight why there needs to be a stronger global health security system to ensure this doesn't happen again, Blinken said. Reforms must include a commitment to transparency, information sharing and access for experts "and China has to play a part in that," he said.

Blinken said it was important to reach a more conclusive accounting of how the pandemic began.

"We need to do that precisely so we fully understand what happened, in order to have the best shot possible preventing it from happening again," he said. "That's why we need to get to the bottom of this."

When the WHO report was issued in March, the United States, the European Union and other Western countries called for China to give "full access" to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.