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As calls mount, China says it will back probe into coronavirus origin, but not yet

Gottlieb: WHO should investigate China's handling of coronavirus outbreak

As the number of coronavirus infections reported worldwide nears the 5 million mark, China has eased its resistance to mounting calls for an investigation into the origin of the pathogen. But the Chinese leader made it clear Monday that Beijing believes the time for such questions hasn't come yet.

China reported the world's first new coronavirus cases, in the city of Wuhan, to the World Health Organization on December 31. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have since claimed the U.S. has evidence that the disease originated from a laboratory in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province.  

While U.S. intelligence officials have said the theory is possible and among those being investigated, most scientists — including the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci  — believe the virus has natural origins and was likely transmitted to humans from wild animals.

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More than 100 of the World Health Organization's 194 member nations now support an international investigation into the disease's origin, including the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Australia and the European Union were to table a formal motion for such a probe Monday at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization's top policy-making body, the World Health Assembly.

"This is about collaborating to equip the international community to better prevent or counter the next pandemic and keep our citizens safe," Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said Sunday

"In all this, we count on China to play its full role, in line with its global weight and responsibilities," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in an opinion piece published on Friday.

The resolution at the Assembly calling for an investigation would need the support of two-thirds of member states, or about 130 countries, to be taken forward.  

Beijing initially stood firmly opposed to any probe into the genesis of the virus, but in recent weeks has softened its stance as calls for an independent inquiry have gained traction.

"China, along with other countries, took an active part in these consultations and agreed on the unifying of the text," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday in Beijing. But he suggested that with many nations still in the throes of the pandemic, Beijing felt the discussion about an investigation was premature, and he stopped short of China overtly supporting a vote for the measure Monday at the World Health Assembly.

CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS
Security guards patrol outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the new coronavirus was detected early on in Wuhan, China, January 24, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/Getty

Chinese President Xi Jinping prepared a speech to present via video during the opening ceremony of the Assembly. He was invited to send the remarks by WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has himself faced criticism from the Trump administration and other WHO states for being too China-friendly in his response to the pandemic. 

In his remarks, Xi said China would support a comprehensive review of the global response to the pandemic led by the WHO, but only after the virus is definitively reined in. Xi reiterated his insistence that China has been open and transparent about disease and said the ruling Communist Party would support an investigation conducted in an objective and impartial manner.

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In a seeming response to recent claims, including from U.S. officials, that China has waged a cyber-espionage campaign aimed at stealing data from researchers around the world racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, Xi said any vaccine developed in China would be made available to the world.

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