China pushes back on Australia’s virus probe win

The World Health Assembly has passed a motion to conduct a review of the global coronavirus response.

The motion was proposed by Australia, New Zealand, the UK and EU member states at the virtual WHA summit.

It calls for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to work with the UN and other organisations to "identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts."

The aim is to "reduce the risk of similar events as well as to provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-COV2 infection in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, as well as to reduce further risks of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases."


Australia's trade minister said on Tuesday that Beijing had erred by imposing stiff tariffs on Australian barley in what is widely seen as punishment for advocating an investigation into the coronavirus pandemic.

China effectively ended imports of Australian barley by putting tariffs of more than 80 per cent on the crop, accusing Australia of breaching World Trade Organisation rules by subsidising barley production and selling the crop in China at below production costs.

The move came a week after China banned beef imports from Australia's four largest abattoirs over labelling issues.

"Australia is not interested in a trade war. We don't pursue our trade policies on a tit-for-tat basis," Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters.

"We operate according to the trade rules that we strongly support."

Mr Birmingham said China "has made errors of both fact and law" in applying WTO rules, adding that there was no evidence that Australia was engaged in dumping of products.

Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham has said that Australia is not interested in a trade war with China. Picture: Picture: Lawrence Pinder
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham has said that Australia is not interested in a trade war with China. Picture: Picture: Lawrence Pinder


The trade dispute has coincided with Australia's push for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and responses to it.

Beijing has denied they are related.

The World Health Organization bowed to calls Monday from most of its member states to launch an independent probe into how it managed the international response to the virus, which was first found in China late last year.

The evaluation would stop short of looking into contentious issues such as the origins of the virus.

Australia has been seen as a leader in rallying global support for an inquiry, attracting Chinese criticism that it is parroting the United States and inviting a Chinese boycott of exports and services.

The Chinese Embassy in Australia said on Tuesday that the WHO consensus reached by its decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, in Geneva did not vindicate Australian calls for an investigation.

"The draft resolution on COVID-19 to be adopted by the World Health Assembly is totally different from Australia's proposal of an independent international review," an embassy statement said.

"To claim the WHA's resolution a vindication of Australia's call is nothing but a joke," the statement added.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on Australia to "completely abandon political manipulation and return to the general consensus of the international community," which China believes is for an eventual investigation once the pandemic is contained.


Weihuan Zhou, a University of New South Wales international trade expert, said China began its barley investigation in 2018 in response to Australia imposing anti-dumping duties on Chinese steel and aluminium.

But Zhou said he suspects the Chinese decisions on beef and barley are because of Australia's advocacy for the coronavirus investigation.

His suspicion was bolstered by China's decision to set the anti-dumping tax at 73.6 per cent - far higher than the 56 per cent that Chinese industry had requested.

Beijing also imposed a 6.9 per cent anti-subsidy tax.

Mr Birmingham said he understood why people drew the link between trade and Australia's coronavirus stance given Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye's "unhelpful comments" in a newspaper interview last month.

Mr Cheng told The Australian Financial Review that Australia might face a Chinese boycott of its tourism and exports of wine, beef and other goods if the government pressed for a coronavirus inquiry.




China is the No. 1 market for Australian beef, accounting for about 30 per cent of exports.

"Others can debate whether or not there's a linkage," Mr Birmingham said.

Beijing has regularly used access to its huge market as leverage against governments in political disputes over the past decade.

Chinese officials routinely refuse to confirm a trade disruption is related to a political clash but make it clear Beijing wants concessions.

Australian barley farmer Andrew Weidemann said the tariff barrier "stops the trade completely" with Australia's biggest customer.

"It's a really bitter pill to swallow," Mr Weidemann said. "It's a real dent in our economy and it will have a big impact."




China supports an eventual review of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, but not an immediate probe as Australia and others have proposed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 and it should be "based on science and professionalism led by WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner."

China had long rejected the idea of an investigation into the origins and response to the pandemic but its attitude appeared to soften at the World Health Assembly on Monday.

On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says Chinese would agree to a probe "after the global epidemic is under control, summing up experience and making up for deficiencies."

The U.N.'s World Health Association should lead that work with a "scientific and professional attitude … in the principle of objectivity and fairness."

He rejected Australia's call for an independent body to launch the inquiry following complaints the WHO has shown favouritism toward China.


China reported six new cases on Tuesday, a day after President Xi Jinping announced his country will provide $2 billion ($A 3bn) to help deal with the outbreak and its economic fallout.

Three of the new cases were listed as imported. Two were registered as local infections in Jilin province, and another local case was identified in Hubei province, where China's outbreak was centred.

Authorities in Hubei carried out nucleic acid tests on more than 1.5 million people between May 11 and May 17.

More than 72.5 per cent of the tests were administered in Wuhan, where authorities plan to eventually test all 11 million residents as part of safeguards against a second wave of virus cases.

Wuhan and surrounding cities in Hubei accounted for the bulk of China's reported 82,690 cases and 4634 deaths from COVID-19.



The EU is urging all countries to back the U.N. agency after US President Donald Trump threatened to permanently cut US funding to the World Health Organisation.

European Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson says global co-operation is "the only effective and viable option to win this battle." She says "this is the time for solidarity.

It is not the time for finger pointing or undermining multilateral co-operation."

In a letter to WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Mr Trump wrote the agency's incompetence in its response to the pandemic.



Mr Trump threatened to cut US WHO funding unless it commits to "substantive improvements" in the next 30 days.

A spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation says the U.N. health agency doesn't have an immediate reaction to the letter from Mr Trump that listed his complaints, including "an alarming lack of independence" from China in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib says she's seen the letter.


Donald Trump wrote a scathing letter addressed to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, threatening funding cuts from the US. Picture: AP
Donald Trump wrote a scathing letter addressed to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, threatening funding cuts from the US. Picture: AP

"I don't have any reaction, we have been busy trying to finalise our agenda for the World Health Assembly," she said, referring to health agency's annual meeting, which has been shortened and will end later on Tuesday because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

"I am sure in the course of the day we will have more clarity and reaction to this letter," she said at a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

Mr Trump pinned the letter to his Twitter account overnight, saying it was "self-explanatory!"

Among other things, Mr Trump pointed to his decision to suspend US contributions to the WHO pending a review of its actions in response to the outbreak.

He faulted its "repeated missteps" in the response to the pandemic, saying they have proven "very costly for the world."







Britain's coronavirus death toll hit 35,341 on Tuesday after hundreds more died in the UK - including a seven-year-old.

Yesterday marked the lowest rise in deaths in the UK since lockdown began, with 160 fatalities reported - but in one day that jumped to 545, according to The Sun.

The child fatality was one of 168 people in England with an underlying health condition to lose their lives.

Six more patients, the youngest of whom was 45, had no health condition known to medics.

It means the total number of deaths in England is now 24,913, NHS England officials say.

In Scotland, there were 29 more deaths. A further 17 people lost their lives in Wales, and seven in Ireland.

In total, 248,818 people have now tested positive for COVID-19.

New analysis published today suggests Britain's overall death toll from the virus is far higher than the total reported by the Government so far - and has already passed 44,000.

The Office for National Statistics reports that 39,071 deaths involving the deadly bug occurred in England and Wales up to May 8 and had been registered up to May 16.




Hong Kong's leader says the city is ramping up testing for the coronavirus, especially for workers at the busy international airport and caregivers at homes for the elderly and disabled.

Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that tests will be increased from 4500 to 7000 daily, with both the government health department and university laboratories taking part.

Hong Kong has gone several days without reporting new local infections, but a recent family cluster has increased concerns about those who show no symptoms passing the virus on to others, which the authorities hope can be remedied by increased testing.

Hong Kong on Tuesday also confirmed the extension of social distancing measures for two more weeks until June 4, meaning they will be in effect during the annual commemoration of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square that is normally marked with a rally and march in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, a densely populated city of more than 7 million people just across the border from mainland China, has recorded just 1055 COVID-19 cases and four deaths.



Singapore has apologised to 357 COVID-19 patients who received an erroneous text message saying they had again tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The tiny Southeast Asian nation has confirmed over 28,000 cases of the disease, one of the highest tallies in Asia, and is under lockdown until June 1.

The death toll in Singapore stands at 22.

"The messages had been sent due to an IT system testing glitch as we sought to improve the efficiency of our system," the health ministry said in a statement issued late Monday.

It apologised "for any inconvenience and anxiety caused" and said recipients had been alerted to the error within hours.

Two former COVID-19 patients who received the message told Singapore broadcaster ChannelNewsAsia that they had previously been confirmed as negative and had already been discharged.

The ministry did not immediately confirm whether recovered patients had received the messages.






The number of coronavirus cases in India has surged past 100,000, and infections are now on the rise in the home states of migrant workers who left cities and towns during the nationwide lockdown.

India's Health Ministry on Tuesday reported a total of 101,139 cases of the coronavirus and 3163 deaths.

Over the past week, India has seen an average of almost 4000 news cases a day, with states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Gujarat, the major contributors of the migrant labour workforce in the country, showing major spurts in infections amid relaxed lockdown rules.

This year's celebration marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan will be muted in Indonesia's capital, with authorities extending coronavirus restrictions.

Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan announced on Tuesday that restrictions initially slated to end Friday will be extended to June 4.

He urged Muslims to suspend communal gatherings, including religious activities in mosques, during Eid-al Fitr, which falls on Sunday.

Muslims usually congregate for Eid prayers in mosques and fields, and share meals among communities. Jakarta has become the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia, recording 6155 confirmed cases with 470 fatalities. Nationwide, 18,496 cases have been recorded, including 1221 deaths.






Originally published as China pushes back on Australia's virus probe win