Coronavirus inquiry resolution adopted at World Health Assembly as China signs on
A historic motion led by the European Union and Australia to establish an independent review of the coronavirus has passed the World Health Assembly.
The unanimous vote was carried without objection just before 10 pm on Tuesday night. The decision will see an inquiry into the origins and international response to the coronavirus established at the earliest possible opportunity.
The reviews will identify the source of the virus and the route of introduction from other animals to the human population and review lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.
It follows weeks of negotiations and rising diplomatic tension that has put Australia between the US and China as the world grapples with the fallout from the largest pandemic in a century.
China's last-minute decision to co-sponsor the resolution means it passed with full consensus at the meeting of the assembly just before 10pm Tuesday night, AEST.
China had opposed Australia’s calls for an independent global inquiry, but has now insisted the motion it co-sponsored is vastly different to Canberra’s position.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Credit:Xinhua
The motion was originally put forward by the European Union, but after negotiations with a number of countries, including Australia, it was strengthened to explicitly state the review should be "impartial, independent and comprehensive". Australia lobbied the United States and the United Kingdom to join the resolution last week.
The final text of the key clause establishing an independent review is the same as a second draft published by the EU and backed by Australia on the weekend.
The final motion calls for the review to be coordinated by the World Health Organisation, whose own role in handling the pandemic has been called into question.
Australia's amendments to the EU motion focused on an independent and comprehensive evaluation at the earliest possible moment, with a particular emphasis on the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.
China's embassy in Canberra on Tuesday labelled Australia's attempts to claim credit for the imminent passage of the independent review "a joke".
China's Foreign Ministry has sought to emphasise the European Union's role in the motion in recent days.
"It is a totally different thing from the so-called independent inquiry pushed by the Australian side," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday night.
The Chinese Communist Party’s international state media mouthpiece, The Global Times, said China’s decision to back the inquiry was a hit to Australia. “This is a slap to the face to countries like Australia - the most active player in pushing forward a so-called independent probe into China over the coronavirus outbreak, which was then rejected by the international community,” it said.
The simultaneous developments highlight the deteriorating relations between Australia and its largest trading partner.
Despite the US and China co-sponsoring the bill, tensions between the two superpowers are likely to increase further in the wake of the pandemic.
On the eve of the virtual debate, US President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw World Health Organisation funding permanently after suspending US contributions in April over the WHO's handling of the coronavirus.
Mr Trump accused the World Health Organisation of an "alarming lack of independence" from China after alleging it ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in December 2019, made misleading claims about human-to-human transmission and repeatedly praised China for its transparency.
China followed through on Monday night with threats to hit Australian barley producers with tariffs of up to 80 per cent.
A Bloomberg business wire report on Tuesday claimed that Chinese officials had compiled a list of Australian goods it could target - such as wine, oatmeal and dairy - using anti-dumping investigations, tariffs and quality checks, as well as using state media to drum up consumer boycotts.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra