SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will push for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic at next month’s annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), its prime minister said on Thursday.
Australia wants the WHO to be strengthened and is suggesting introducing inspectors with the power to enter a country to respond more quickly to a health crisis in the style of weapons inspectors.
Australia sits on the executive board of the assembly, which determines WHO policies and appoints the director-general. The assembly is due to meet on May 17.
The coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has spread around the world infecting some 2.6 million people and killing more than 183,000 of them, according to Reuters calculations.
The WHO’s response to the outbreak has become contentious with U.S. President Donald Trump accusing it of being “China-centric” and suspending U.S. funding.
Diplomats believe the May meeting opens the door for discussion of Australia’s call for an enquiry because agenda items already include calls for a “lessons learned” review of health emergencies, and urge members to comply with international health regulations introduced after the 2004 SARS outbreak in China.
“The World Health Assembly is coming up in May. There are opportunities to pursue that matter there and that is our first port of call,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
Australia has overcome the worst of its coronavirus outbreak, which is why it has moved on to lobbying other countries to support its call for an enquiry, but it understood that other nations were still dealing with high death rates, government sources said.
Morrison has called leaders in France, Germany and the United States and is expected to lobby Britain and Canada as Australia seeks support from “like-minded” nations.
France and Britain said on Wednesday it was not the time for an investigation.
Morrison told reporters he understood hesitation about the timing and played down suggestions China would be targeted.
“Our purpose here is just pretty simple, we would like the world to be safer when it comes to viruses,” he said.
Although the proposal would be for a broad review of the coronavirus outbreak and the WHO response, which could then propose ways to strengthen WHO powers, Morrison said he supported a weapons-inspector-style arrangement for health emergencies that countries would sign up to.
“They don’t have a roving commission to go anywhere they want in the world, but if you are going to be a member of a club like the World Health Organization there should be obligations and responsibilities attached,” he told a news conference.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the agency would carry out an “after-action” review when the crisis was over.
Morrison told Australian broadcaster Sky that “nothing was changed” after the WHO held a review of an Ebola outbreak in Africa that critics said it handled poorly.
Former Australian diplomat and intelligence chief, Richard Maude, said Australia had led coalitions of nations on issues including disarmament, non-proliferation and Russia’s downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine.
“Australia has a good record of getting things done in multilateral processes, including the United Nations,” said Maude, the executive director of policy at the Asia Society Australia.
“The problem for Australia right now is that while the objectives – greater transparency and learning lessons – are reasonable and important, the issue of the origins of the virus and the path of its transmission have become so caught up in geo-politics and deteriorating US-China ties that China is very unlikely to cooperate.”
China has criticised Australia’s call for an investigation as “political manipulation” and accused Australian lawmakers of parroting Trump.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne wrote in a newspaper column that no country would be singled out and the WHO’s role should be reviewed because Australia wanted strong multilateral institutions.
Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel