More than 100 countries – a majority – are now backing Scott Morrison’s call for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus at this week’s World Health Assembly.
The diplomatic breakthrough follows claims Australia had embarked on the mission to secure an inquiry with little international support.
But Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said today he remains hopeful that China may back the motion.
“I hope that China will participate,” he said. “I hope China will come on board at the World Health Assembly, joining many, many other nations in supporting the obvious need for an inquiry into COVID-19, its origins, its handling right across the world.
“Because we’ve had a circumstance where hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions of people had their lives disrupted, and the least the world can expect is an inquiry that allows us to learn the lessons so that we can try to avoid a repeat of this in the future.”
Reviving claims the virus could have been spreading in the United States weeks before the outbreak in Wuhan, China has warned the probe must also investigate the US response to the pandemic.
China’s propaganda news outlet The Global Times warned the inquiry must be scientific and fair.
“Will China oppose scientific research into the virus’s origin? No, because it is a necessary move to fight COVID-19 in a scientific way and conducive to prevention measures and development of vaccines and medicines,” the editorial states.
“Scientific investigation should be carried out. But first of all, it should be led by the World Health Organisation rather than any country or regional organisation. Second, the investigation needs to be scientific and fair. Not only China-related factors, but also those related to the US and other countries need to be included.
“Earlier confirmed cases than the previously known first infected case have continuously been found in the US. Among those diagnosed as having flu last winter, how many were coronavirus infections? All these clues shouldn’t be missed.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly stated the most likely source of the outbreak was the Wuhan wet market.
But the US has called for a probe into concerns it could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was investigating bat-borne coronaviruses.
“Washington’s smear that a Wuhan lab was the virus origin has been universally opposed by scientists, but the US is still irrationally calling for an investigation,” the Global Times reported.
“It is obviously an unfair and unscientific appeal that China will never accept.
“Some people in Europe and Australia echoed the US proposal for an independent investigation, against which China is certainly vigilant. Do some people in Canberra and other places follow Washington politically and conceal their political intention toward China?”
China accused Western allies of trying to “appease the slanderous intentions of Washington”.
“The aim of this international coronavirus probe advocated by the US and its allies (namely the EU and Australia) is to pass the buck of Washington’s mishandling of the COVID-19 to China,” it said.
“Take the US for instance. Many Americans and media are aware that President Donald Trump’s administration made countless mistakes at the onset of the pandemic.”
Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells raised concerns today the motion had been watered down because it does not specifically mention China.
“Just from a cursory reading it doesn’t seem to have a reference to China,” she told 2GB radio.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne also welcomed the growing support for the COVID probe today.
Asked if the probe was independent, Senator Payne said she was confident it would be.
“I think in what is a comprehensive resolution, you will see the review is specifically referred to as impartial, independent, and comprehensive,’’ she said.
“The Prime Minister and I have also discussed a number of mechanisms within the WHO, including their independent oversight advisory body, which has the capacity to do some of this work, but that is to be determined after the resolution is dealt with by the World Health Assembly.”
But in April, Senator Payne suggested that WHO could not be left to investigate itself.
“I’m not sure that you can have the health organisation which has been responsible for disseminating much of the international communications material, and doing much of the early engagement and investigative work, also as the review mechanism,’’ she said.
“That strikes me as a bit poacher and gamekeeper.”
China meanwhile, has warned it was not troubled by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s call for Australian exporters to look towards alternative markets.
“To be clear, whether Australia considers new markets won’t cause much trouble to China,” The Global Times reported. “It won’t be a problem for Chinese consumers to buy beef and wine, among others from other alternative suppliers.
“Moreover, the Australian government seems more interested in exploiting China’s suspension of some beef imports and its potential imposition of tariffs on Australian barley to describe itself as a victim of trade sanctions.
“Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday during a press conference that there are lines about ‘important things’, and ‘those things are not to be traded, ever’. And Birmingham complained that his request for a call with his counterpart remains unanswered.
“But don’t forget that it is the Morrison government that has been unfriendly to China all the time, destroying the foundation of normal trade. One reason we can think of why the Chinese side hasn’t arranged the call is that their trade disputes cannot be simply solved through a phone call, as it requires rebuilding trust between the two sides.”