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WHO to probe virus response


The World Health Organisation says an independent review of the global coronavirus response will begin as soon as possible, and it received backing and a hefty pledge of funds from China.

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More than 110 countries at the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, on Monday night backed a resolution calling for an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response to the pandemic.

The draft resolution does not mention China.

But the US administration of President Donald Trump decried an “apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak by at least one member state”.

US Health Secretary Alex Azar did not mention China by name, but made clear Washington considered the WHO jointly responsible for the pandemic.

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control,” he said on Monday.

“There was a failure by this organisation to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”

Speaking after Azar, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said Beijing had been timely and open in announcing the outbreak and sharing the virus’s full gene sequence.

Ma urged countries to “oppose rumours, stigmatisation and discrimination”.

China pledged $US2 billion ($A3.1 billion) over the next two years to help deal with COVID-19, especially in developing countries.

The amount almost matches the WHO’s entire annual program budget for last year, and more than compensates for Trump’s freeze of US payments worth about $US400 million ($A614 million) a year.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the UN body had “sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often”.

When it declared a global emergency on January 30, there were fewer than 100 cases outside China and no deaths, he said.

Tedros, who has always promised a review, told the forum it would come “at the earliest appropriate moment” and make recommendations for the future.

He received robust backing from the WHO’s independent oversight panel.

“Every country and every organisation must examine its response and learn from its experience,” he said, adding that the review must cover “all actors in good faith”.

In its first report on the handling of the pandemic, the seven-member oversight committee said the WHO had “demonstrated leadership and made important progress in its COVID-19 response”.

The panel endorsed a review but said conducting it now could hamper the WHO’s response to the pandemic.

It also said “an imperfect and evolving understanding” was not unusual when a new disease emerged.

In an apparent rejoinder to Trump, the panel said a “rising politicisation of pandemic response” was hindering the effort to defeat the virus.

Azar said the US supported “an independent review of every aspect of WHO’s response” and that China’s conduct should be “on the table” too.

A resolution drafted by the EU calling for an independent evaluation of the WHO’s performance appeared to have won consensus backing among the WHO’s 194 states. It was expected to be debated and adopted on Tuesday.

Donald Trump told his 80 million Twitter followers he backed the independent inquiry, which Australia was instrumental in pushing for.

Trump retweeted a news story about support for the probe, writing: “We are with them!”

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the inquiry needed to protect against the health risks of wildlife wet markets and include all populations or partners.

“We need to learn the lessons from this pandemic and ensure we have the strongest possible global health architecture, with an enhanced ability to prevent and respond to future outbreaks,” he said.

China is now slapping punitive tariffs of more than 80 per cent on Australian barley imports.

The tariffs come one week after China imposed a ban on meat imports from four Australian processing plants.

-with AAP

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