WASHINGTON, United States — Australia called Thursday for the World Health Organization to be given greater powers to investigate outbreaks after an independent panel found dithering and poor coordination when COVID-19 emerged in China.
Australia has been in the firing line from China, its largest trading partner, over steps including backing US-led calls for a probe into COVID’s origins, with Beijing imposing tariffs on key products including wine and cutting off diplomatic and trade talks.
On a visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised recommendations of a panel report released Wednesday and said, “We absolutely support those being taken very seriously.”
She pointed to recommendations “about increasing the independence and authority of the WHO so that they have explicit powers to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential and to publish information about those potential outbreaks with immediate action without prior approval of national governments.”
“The independent panel is a very important one in terms of the way forward for ensuring that we avoid the experience that the world, this country, our country, so many countries have had to deal with in recent times and the extraordinary loss of life that it has caused,” she said.
The panel, led by former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, found that early responses to the outbreak in Wuhan, China in December 2019 “lacked urgency” and said the pandemic — which has killed at least 3.3 million people and devastated the global economy — was preventable.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking with Payne, renewed US criticism of the original WHO investigation.
“The issue is less about assigning blame and more about understanding what happened so that we can take effective action for the future,” Blinken said.
“There was a failure on the part of the PRC to allow timely access to international experts, timely sharing of information, real transparency when it mattered most,” Blinken said of China.
President Joe Biden’s administration, however, has reversed a decision by previous president Donald Trump to leave the WHO, pointing to plenty of positive work by the UN body and calling for efforts to improve it from within.
Blinken voiced support for Australia, one of the closest US allies, in the face of pressure from Beijing.
“I reiterated that the United States will not leave Australia alone on the field — or maybe I should say alone on the pitch — in the face of economic coercion by China,” Blinken said, switching the two countries’ sporting metaphors.
“That’s what allies do we have each other’s backs,” he said.
Payne welcomed the statement of US support and said Australia wanted a “constructive” relationship with China.
“We stand ready at any time,” she said, “to resume dialogue, but we have also been open and clear and consistent about the fact that we are dealing with a number of challenges.”