Australia seeks probe into coronavirus spread, France and UK say now not the time

SYDNEY/GENEVA (Reuters) - Australia sought support for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in calls with U.S. President Donald Trump and major powers, but France and Britain said now was the time to fight the virus, not to apportion blame.

Australia’s push for an independent review of the origins and spread of the pandemic, including the response of the World Health Organization (WHO), has drawn sharp criticism from China, which has accused Australian lawmakers of taking instructions from the United States.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Twitter he had “a very constructive discussion” with Trump on the two nations’ responses to COVID-19 and the need to get economies up and running.

“We also talked about the WHO & working together to improve the transparency & effectiveness of the international responses to pandemics,” he tweeted.

The White House has been fiercely critical of China and the WHO, and has withdrawn U.S. funding from the U.N. agency.

Morrison also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron by phone about the role of the WHO, his office said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly said that it will evaluate its handling of the pandemic after it ends and draw the appropriate lessons, as it does after all emergencies.

Macron told Morrison now was not the time for an investigation, a French official said.

“He says he agrees that there have been some issues at the start, but that the urgency is for cohesion, that it is no time to talk about this, while reaffirming the need for transparency for all players, not only the WHO,” an Elysee official told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Police officers patrol near the Sydney Opera House following the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there would be a time when Britain will have to look at the lessons to be learned from the crisis, but for now ministers were focused on fighting the pandemic.

In Berlin, the government confirmed that Merkel had spoken with Morrison on Tuesday. Last Friday, her spokesman said: “The coronavirus appeared first in China. China has suffered a lot from the virus and did a lot to fight against spreading.”

The new coronavirus, believed to have emerged in a market selling live animals in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was first reported by China to the WHO on Dec. 31.

WHO informed member states of the outbreak on Jan. 5 and warned publicly a week later that there was “limited” human-to-human transmission. WHO officials arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 20, after the virus had spread to three other countries. It declared a global emergency on Jan. 30.

The COVID-19 outbreak has since spread to infect some 2.3 million people globally and killed nearly 160,000, according to Reuters calculations.

Australia is examining whether the WHO should be given powers, similar to international weapons inspectors, to enter a country to investigate an outbreak without having to wait for consent, a government source told Reuters.

Senior Australian lawmakers have also questioned Beijing’s transparency over the pandemic.

Jeremy Farrar, a specialist in infectious disease epidemics and director of the Wellcome Trust global health fund, defended what he said was the WHO’s swift response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

National governments should be under scrutiny for whether they heeded warnings, added Farrar, who has criticised the WHO for its handling of the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2013/2014.

“I have been critical of WHO in the past -- but on this one I don’t think the WHO could have moved quicker to alert the world,” he told reporters at an online briefing from London.

“Have national governments responded in the right way and followed the WHO advice? No they haven’t. And there will have to be enquiries into all of that.”

China’s embassy in Canberra said in a statement late on Tuesday that Australian lawmakers were acting as the mouthpiece of Trump and “certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China”.

Australia has recorded just over 6,600 cases of the virus nationally, with four new cases on Wednesday. Infection rates have slowed from 25% in mid-March to less than 1% a day.

Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Colin Packham in Sydney; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Michel Rose in Paris, Willima James in London and Andreas Rinke in Berlin: Editing by Nick Macfie and Catherine Evans