Australia Sydney Opera House
Police officers patrol near the Sydney Opera House following the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, April 6, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Sydney: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought support for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in phone calls with US President Donald Trump and the German and French leaders, Canberra said on Wednesday.

But French President Emmanuel Macron told him the urgency was to beat the pandemic before looking for who was at fault, a French official said.

Australia’s push for an independent review of the origins and spread of the pandemic, including the response of the World Health Organization (WHO), has drawn sharp criticism from China, which has accused Australian lawmakers of taking instructions from the United States.

The new coronavirus, believed to have emerged in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, was first reported by China to the WHO on December 31.

WHO informed member states of the outbreak on Jan 5 and warned publicly a week later that there was “limited” human-to-human transmission. WHO officials arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 20, after the virus had spread to three other countries. It went on to declare a global emergency on Jan. 30.

The virus has since infected some 2.3 million people globally and killed nearly 160,000, according to Reuters calculations.

Constructive discussion with Trump

Morrison said on Twitter on Wednesday he had “a very constructive discussion” with Trump on the two nation’s responses to COVID-19 and the need to get economies up and running.

“We also talked about the WHO & working together to improve the transparency & effectiveness of the international responses to pandemics,” he tweeted.

The White House has been fiercely critical of China and the WHO, and has withdrawn US funding from the UN agency.

Morrison also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron by phone about the role of the WHO, his office said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly said that the UN agency will evaluate its handling of the pandemic after it ends and draw the appropriate lessons, as it does after all emergencies.

“WHO wants this more than any organisation because we want to learn from our mistakes, from our strengths and move forward.

“But for now the focus should be on fighting this virus,” Tedros told a briefing earlier this month.

Macron told Morrison now was not the time for an investigation.

“He says he agrees that there have been some issues at the start, but that the urgency is for cohesion, that it is no time to talk about this, while reaffirming the need for transparency for all players, not only the WHO,” an Elysee official told Reuters on Wednesday.

In Berlin, the government confirmed that Merkel had spoken with Morrison on Tuesday. Last Friday, her spokesman said: “The coronavirus appeared first in China. China has suffered a lot from the virus and did a lot to fight against spreading.” Australia is examining whether the WHO should be given powers, similar to international weapons inspectors, to enter a country to investigate an outbreak without having to wait for consent, a government source told Reuters.

Senior Australian lawmakers have also questioned Beijing’s transparency over the pandemic.

China’s embassy in Canberra said in a statement late on Tuesday that Australian lawmakers were acting as the mouthpiece of Trump and “certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China”.

Australia has recorded just over 6,600 cases of the virus nationally, with four new cases on Wednesday. Infection rates have slowed from 25% in mid-March to less than 1% a day.

Lawmakers plan to ease some curbs, with Australia’s iconic Bondi Beach to partially reopen next week.