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World

WHO seeks next steps in Covid origins probe

  • Determining how the virus that causes Covid-19 first began spreading among humans is seen as vital to preventing future outbreaks.
22 Apr 2021

GENEVA: After an international mission to China turned up more questions than answers about the pandemic origins, the WHO is evaluating how to move forward through a diplomatic quagmire to solve the mystery.

Determining how the virus that causes Covid-19 first began spreading among humans is seen as vital to preventing future outbreaks.

But a long-delayed report, drafted by the team of international experts sent to Wuhan at the start of the year and their Chinese counterparts, drew no firm conclusions and called for more investigation.

The World Health Organization's emergency committee this week urged the "rapid implementation" of the report recommendations for phase two probes.

But while the WHO and countries worldwide agree further investigation is needed, a fight is brewing over what the next phase of inquiry should entail and where it should take place.

It took more than a year after Covid-19 first surfaced in Wuhan in December 2019 to get the international expert team to China, and Beijing appears intent on seeing the next phase focus elsewhere.

"We hope that other relevant countries will cooperate closely with WHO experts in a scientific, open, transparent and responsible manner, as China has done," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on March 31.

'Absurd'

But critics question the transparency around the first mission, called for in a resolution passed last May by WHO member countries, and insist far more investigation in China is needed.

"At a very basic level, there is unanimity in terms of that the phase two should take place in China," a senior Western diplomat in Geneva said, requesting anonymity.

Beijing was the only party voicing "the view that somehow the next phase should be in any other region," the diplomat added.

"The idea that the next phase should not focus primarily on China is absurd," US geopolitical expert Jamie Metzl told AFP.

Metzl, one of 24 scientists from the US, Europe, Australia and Japan who published an open letter earlier this month demanding a more comprehensive investigation, described the first mission and resulting report as "deeply flawed".

Critics charge the mission was heavily orchestrated by Beijing and that the report focused disproportionately on theories favoured by China.

"The oversized role that the government of China played in this process, I think was problematic," the Western diplomat said.