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China backs a fair ‘comprehensive review’ of pandemic

China supports the comprehensive review of the COVID-19 response, which should be conducted in an objective and impartial manner, Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Monday at the opening session of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA). 

The top Chinese leader’s comment was echoed by many scientists and medical experts across the world, who have also rejected a misinterpretation of such review by some Western politicians and media outlets as an independent inquiry to hold Beijing accountable for the outbreak, as part of their efforts to politicize the pandemic of COVID-19. 

The world is facing the most serious public health emergency since World War II, calling on the international community to increase political and financial support for the World Health Organization (WHO), which, Xi said, plays a vital role in leading the battle to save more lives. Xi also said that with enormous sacrifice, China has turned the tide on the virus and protected people’s lives. During this process, the country attached great importance to openness, transparency and responsibility. 

“China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up the experiences and address the deficiencies. This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner,” Xi said. 

More than 100 countries have reportedly joined a coalition to come up with a draft resolution calling for support for all countries upon their request in implementing a multi-sector action plan in strengthening their health systems against the COVID-19 pandemic, working collaboratively at all levels to develop, and scale up effective and affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicine and vaccines, showed the resolution. 

The resolution also called on using existing mechanisms to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19. However, such an initiative has been misinterpreted by some Western politicians and media as a probe into China’s initial handling of the outbreak, according to media reports

Bloomberg reported that China faces an angry world seeking virus answers, as the EU and Australia are pushing forward the probe into the virus’ origin at the WHA in an article published on Sunday. Some media like Channel NewsAsia reported last week that Beijing has suspended imports of Australian beef as retaliation for Canberra’s push to probe the origins of the virus, heating up tensions between the two countries. 

Xi’s support for the review on the COVID-19, however, clarified the stance of the Chinese side, which always supports open, transparent and scientific-based studies, given the country has nothing to hide and to fear, as some Chinese officials and experts emphasized. The question about the origin of the novel coronavirus and other relevant questions should be the task of scientists, not politicians. As COVID-19 may have multiple birthplaces around the world, as some experts have suggested, any thorough investigation should be conducted at the global level.

Some media and online critics also said countries like Russia are backing such a coalition – calling it China’s “strategic partner” to join the initiative to pressure Beijing. However, the Chinese side emphasized that it has always been supporting global cooperation and attaching great importance to the WHO for its leading role in this fight. Such confusion of the purpose of this draft resolution proposed by the coalition also reflects a misunderstanding of existing mechanisms in reviewing and drawing lessons from the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (L) attends a daily briefing in Geneva, Switzerland. (Xinhua/Chen Junxia)

‘No sense of guilt’

As the majority of countries believe the pandemic has not reached its end, collaboration in fighting the virus remains the top priority while it is still premature to launch an investigation and look into the source of the virus, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a routine press conference on Monday, urging countries to respect the spirit of science and cooperation in giving out constructive views on improving global public health system. 

He also emphasized that such a resolution is different from a so-called independent inquiry, and China has also taken part in negotiating the draft and agreed with the content. 

“The adoption of any resolution was the result of the joint efforts of member states and should not be interpreted unilaterally,” he said. 

With regard to the assessment of the WHO response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the resolution requested the WHO director-general to initiate, at the appropriate time and in consultation with member states, a process of impartial, independent and comprehensive assessment to consider lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated response to the epidemic and to make recommendations for future work. This is also the usual practice of the WHO after major pandemic, the spokesperson said. 

Wang Guangfa, a leading Chinese respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital in Beijing, told the Global Times on Monday that the investigation into the virus could be helpful to study unknown viruses and prepare for a possible new epidemic.

“Compared to other countries, China has achieved great success in combating the epidemic and Chinese efforts and lessons have been widely recognized by the international community,” Wang said, noting that “we have no sense of guilt.”

Wang was part of the expert group dispatched by central authorities at the early stage of the outbreak, who was also the first coronavirus-infected and cured expert. 

Other Chinese experts and officials believe that Beijing has always been open to a fair and science-based investigation of the virus, and what it rejects is turning such a probe into a political playbook, causing disputes and escalating a war of words against China

For instance, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, said the investigation should not be politically motivated when asked by Sky News in a recent interview on why an international investigation should not be allowed. “We welcome an international independent review, but it has to be organized by the WHO. It should be international,” Liu said, reiterating transparency and openness.

However, there have been conspiracy theories and a disinformation campaign by Western politicians and media against China since the outbreak, especially American hawks, by blaming China for deliberately releasing the virus from a lab, constantly calling it the “Chinese virus” that has sparked hatred and racist sentiment toward Asian Americans, elevating China’s “culpability” for the epidemic. 

“A rational and scientific investigation could focus on three main problems: When exactly did the coronavirus first appear? What is the natural source? And how did the virus pass to humans?” Wang said, pointing out that as mounting scientific evidence suggested COVID-19 may have surfaced earlier than reported in countries beyond China, the investigation should be launched across the world.

Joint responsibility

One of the major conspiracy theories frequently mentioned by some US media and politicians is the virus was “a laboratory escape.” However, this contradicts the resolution to the WHO that the majority of the member countries support.  

The draft statement called for continuously working closely with UN-related authorities to identify the zoonotic source of the virus as well as the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts. Efforts should be carried out through scientific and collaborative field missions. 

The impartial investigation should also include widely recognized professionals and staff from different countries, led by authority institutions, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times. “It can’t end up being a political investigation or smear campaign probe. That’s not the duty of the WHO,” he said. 

Peter Forster, the first author of a research to map out the coronavirus’ path of infection, found out that the earliest known strain of the virus, termed by the scientists as “Type A,” was detected in the US and Australia. 

Forster, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, told the Global Times in an interview in April that “in my view, anyone searching for the detailed origins of the virus needs to search more broadly in China and East Asia.”

It has become a shared view by scientists to look into all the possibilities in order to learn more about the coronavirus, and about the origins of the virus. Field studies should also be carried out in countries and regions like the US and EU, analysts said. 

“This is always a scientific question. The virus is different in different places across the world, suggesting there might be multiple birthplaces that we should look into,” Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Xi also told the WHA that China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with the COVID-19 response, set up a global humanitarian response with the help of the UN, and make a COVID-19 vaccine a global public good. The country will also work with G20 members to support the hardest-hit countries under the greatest strain of debt service, and continue helping regions like Africa. 

Sources: The Global Times & The Guardian UK

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