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WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will address the meeting. Photo: Reuters

All eyes on China as World Health Organisation body meets on coronavirus response, Taiwan

  • More than 100 countries reportedly support the push for an independent inquiry into Covid-19’s origins
  • WHO decision makers must also decide whether to allow the island to be an observer at its gatherings
China will be in the spotlight at the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) annual health forum, with major powers pushing for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic and for Taiwan to be granted a seat at the table.

The World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s decision-making body, will meet online for a shortened agenda on Monday and Tuesday, when Beijing and Western countries – particularly the United States – are expected to debate responsibility for the pandemic.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will address the assembly, state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also been invited to deliver a speech at the meeting.

A draft resolution proposed by the European Union (EU) and co-sponsored by Australia, Britain, Zambia, and others, calls for an “impartial, independent, and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus, as well as identification of the pathogen’s source.

The draft resolution also calls for greater international collaboration on vaccines, including through voluntary pooling and licensing of patents.

More than 110 countries – including South Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and the African Group’s 54 member states – have said they support the resolution.

Beijing has said it is “taking an active part in text consultations” on the EU resolution but has lashed out at Australia and the United States, which have been vocal in their calls for an independent investigation into the coronavirus’s origins.

Battle looms at WHO meeting as pressure mounts on China over coronavirus inquiry

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that China had held discussions on the EU-led resolution, and that while it supported a WHO-led investigation into the “animal origin” of the virus and a review on the WHO’s handling of the crisis, the time was not yet ripe.

“During the negotiations, most of the countries said that the epidemic has not ended yet and the most urgent task is to cooperate on fighting the outbreak. It is not time yet to immediately begin a review and investigation on the virus’s origins,” Zhao said.

Zhao also said China opposed the drive for an independent investigation promoted by a handful of “politically motivated” Western countries.

The US government has promoted the theory that the virus may have originated in a lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, while Canberra has echoed the general scientific consensus that it likely spread to humans in Wuhan from an animal source.

There will also be a vote on Monday for a proposal to invite Taiwan to the WHA as an observer, a motion sponsored by eSwatini and Nicaragua, two of Taipei’s 15 remaining diplomatic allies.

Support for Taiwan has also come from the US, Japan, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand.

Taiwan confirmed that the island did not receive an invitation to take part in the WHA event.

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu expressed “deep regret and strong dissatisfaction” over Taiwan’s exclusion, saying the WHO Secretariat had yielded to “pressure from the Chinese government and continued to disregard the right to health of the 23 million people in Taiwan”.

“So far, governments from 29 countries have expressed support for Taiwan’s WHO participation. All of our diplomatic allies submitted the related proposal to the WHO. And a growing number of world leaders have spoken out publicly for Taiwan,” Wu said.

But he said Taipei had accepted “the suggestion from our allies and like-minded nations to wait until the resumed session before further promoting our bid”.

Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said the “exclusion of Taiwan from WHA participation would only create a gap in the global health system, and when it comes to prevention of pandemic outbreak, full global cooperation instead of national borders is highly necessary”.

Taiwan took part in the WHA as an observer from 2009 to 2016 as “Chinese Taipei”, but has been excluded since due to pressure from Beijing after the election of independence-leaning Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Observers said Taiwan was unlikely to be reinstated as an observer.

Sulmaan Khan, a Chinese foreign relations expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said there was a growing backlash over China’s handling of the pandemic but it was not clear if the chorus of support for Taiwan was “going to be sufficient to override Chinese objections”

Finding source of coronavirus will help uncover how Covid-19 ‘invaded human species’, WHO official says

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been criticised as being too complimentary of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, will also address the meeting about the response to Covid-19.

In addition, participants will discuss the WHO’s budget, with its biggest funder, the US, suspending its contributions over concerns about the WHO’s handling of the pandemic.

Analysts said the EU’s proposal for an independent review of Covid-19 is in line with inquiries into previous infectious disease outbreaks, but could struggle to get the needed support from China or the US, with increasingly at odds in their broadening strategic rivalry.

David Fidler, an adjunct senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said that reviews of the international response to major outbreaks, like the one the EU was expected to put forward on Covid-19, were “standard operating procedure”.

“Usually, by the time the post-outbreak reviews happen, the origin or source issue is pretty much resolved, and not particularly controversial, so it does not really have much impact on the policy aspects of review efforts,” he said. “With this pandemic, the origin or source issue is already significantly politicised.”

But if Beijing felt it was being treated unfairly or if Washington was concerned with WHO involvement in the review, “it could be that neither China nor the US support any review proposal, which means it will lack political weight and, perhaps, some legitimacy”, he said.

Alexandra Phelan, adjunct professor in global and public health law at Georgetown University, said an independent Covid-19 inquiry would require high-level support from the United Nations’ leadership to ensure its recommendations were adopted.

“The only way we’re going to get through this next phase without a complete re-envisioning of the international order is some sort of high level-led process like that,” she said. “The problem is we’re probably still going to be battling this pandemic for some time. Working out when to start that process is going to be tricky.”

Additional reporting by Lawrence Chung, Catherine Wong, Linda Lew and Simone McCarthy

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Eyes on china as W.H.O. body meets on virus response