Coronavirus probe gains momentum ahead of World Health Assembly

Many join call for independent probe into pandemic, as world health body faces questions over Taiwan's participation.

    Representatives from around the world will hold a virtual World Health Assembly meeting later on Monday to discuss an independent probe into the coronavirus pandemic [File: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]
    Representatives from around the world will hold a virtual World Health Assembly meeting later on Monday to discuss an independent probe into the coronavirus pandemic [File: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

    More than 100 countries, including 50 African nations and all European Union member states, are backing a resolution calling for an independent probe into the coronavirus pandemic, Australia said in the run-up to a key meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA).

    Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt was quoted by news reports as saying the motion was "expected to be endorsed" at the assembly as early as Tuesday. Hunt is representing his country in the virtual WHA meeting, which is set to begin later on Monday.

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    At least 116 countries have now signed up as co-sponsors of the draft motion calling for an investigation, according to Australia's TV network ABC news.

    Britain, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand and Russia have also indicated their support.

    While the coronavirus motion does not single-out China by name, it has angered officials with Beijing threatening economic countermeasures against Australia, which first pushed for an investigation.

    Aside from the pandemic, World Health Organization (WHO) officials are also expected to raise the question of Taiwan's participation as an observer at the WHA - a move that is also expected to anger China.

    Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China, is one of the few places to have successfully contained the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. 

    The coronavirus pandemic was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. It has since spread around the world with some 4.7 million cases confirmed by Monday and at least 315,000 deaths.

    Although Taiwan lost its place at the United Nations and on many UN bodies when countries began to normalise relations the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s, it remained an observer at the WHA until 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen was elected the island's president. China claims Tsai, who was returned for a second term in a landslide in January is a separatist.

    The US has given its backing to Taiwan's campaign to participate in the assembly, while China has been stepping up its attacks on the self-ruled island and countries that support it.

    'Genesis of the virus'

    Australia called for an independent investigation into the global response to the pandemic last month.

    Foreign Minister Marise Payne said countries around the world needed to know "the genesis of the virus, about the approaches to dealing with it (and) addressing the openness with which information was shared."

    The move drew threats from Beijing, with China's ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, calling it "dangerous".

    "The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," Cheng said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review magazine last month, as he hinted at a possible trade boycott.

    Since then, China has moved to suspend imports from four large Australian beef suppliers.

    China has also threatened the flow of Chinese students to Australian universities, a key source of revenue that is already under threat from pandemic travel restrictions.

    Australia, however, insisted that it was treating the trade issues as unrelated to discussions around a virus probe.

    Australia has so far succeeded in containing the pandemic with social-distancing measures and aggressive testing.

    The country, with a population of 25 million, has recorded 7,036 COVID-19 cases and 98 deaths, significantly below the levels reported in North America and Europe. As of Saturday, the government said it had tested more than one million people for the virus.

    With new daily cases falling, Australia has begun easing its lockdown.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies