Chinese President Xi Jinping and World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have publicly backed the idea of a detailed investigation into the coronavirus pandemic – but not until the "appropriate moment".
China's leader told the World Health Assembly on Monday he supports a WHO-led "comprehensive review" into the Covid-19 pandemic after it is "brought under control".
The WHO director general also bowed to calls from member states for an investigation into the pandemic and said it would take place at the "earliest appropriate moment".
However, it's not clear what such an investigation would look like and if it would match up with demands from WHO member states.
The key item on the agenda of the two-day summit is the draft resolution proposed by New Zealand, Australia, the UK and EU member states, among several other countries, into the source of the virus.
The Australian-led push was first proposed last month but China said it was "firmly opposed" to the idea at the time.
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While the motion doesn't specifically mention China, it had been met with anger by officials and led to economic repercussions for Australia.
The motion calls for the WHO leader 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".
Speaking at the virtual session of 194 countries convened by the WHO that was dominated by the virus pandemic, President Xi said "what we are facing is the most serious global public health emergency since the end of the Second World War".
He said the virus caught the "world by surprise" and "I mourn for every life lost and express condolences for the bereaved families".
"The disease does not respect borders. Nor is race or nationality relevant in the face of the disease."
"In China, after making painstaking efforts and enormous sacrifice we have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people."
He pledged US$2 billion in funds over two years to help the global Covid-19 fight and made six proposals of his own, saying "we also need to continue supporting research into source and transmission routes of the virus".
"China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies. This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner," he said.
The Chinese leader also defended his country's record on sharing information after the virus originated in Wuhan. Any vaccine China developed would be available to the world as a public good, he added.
But despite the supportive words, shortly afterwards China announced it would slap barley tariffs on Australia in a move widely seen as payback for instigating the probe.
WHO BACKS PROBE AT 'APPROPRIATE MOMENT'
WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he would "initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment".
"The greatest failing would be to not learn from [the crisis] and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was in before," he said.
"This is not a new message. Reviews after SARS, H1N1 and West African ebola highlighted shortcomings … and made numerous recommendations."
Dr Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world is still at the beginning of the pandemic and has a long way to go.
"This is a dangerous enemy with a dangerous combination of features. It is efficient, fatal … and explodes like a bushfire."
"We must treat this virus with the respect and attention it deserves.
"We have been humbled by this very small microbe. If this virus is teaching us anything, it's humility.
"Six months ago it would have been inconceivable to most that the world's biggest cities would fall eerily quiet. That global travel would grind to a standstill. That simply shaking hands could be life threatening."
VIRUS 'HAS BROUGHT US TO OUR KNEES'
Earlier on Monday, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the Assembly, lamenting that "a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees".
"When we have finally turned the page on this pandemic … there must be a time to look back. Now is not that time, now is the time for the international community to work in solidarity," he said. "Either we get through this pandemic together or we fail."
WHO announced the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on January 30 – the highest alert level.
Since then, nearly five million people have been infected with Covid-19 with more than 315,000 deaths. The US is the worst-hit country so far and President Trump has repeatedly blamed China for allowing the virus to spread.
Experts believe the virus originated at a Wuhan wetmarket and comes from bats but may have passed through an intermediary animal such as a pangolin.
Monday's announcement by President Xi took many by surprise given that China's foreign ministry said ahead of the Assembly it was premature to launch an investigation into the origins of the virus.
Spokesman Zhao Lijian said the vast majority of countries believed the pandemic was not over yet.
"The time is not ripe to immediately start the investigation and virus tracing," he said in Beijing.
The European Union's diplomatic chief, Josep Borrell, urged European nations to maintain "collective discipline" in the face of China.
"Developing a joint EU approach to superpowers is never easy," former Spanish foreign minister Borrell wrote in an article published in several newspapers.
"And the China case is no exception. What's more, China is not shy about sometimes playing on these differences. But surely it is up to us Europeans to maintain the necessary collective discipline."
On Monday, Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said he was hopeful China would back the motion.
"I hope that China will participate," he said. "I hope China will come on board at the World Health Assembly, joining many, many other nations in supporting the obvious need for an inquiry into Covid-19, its origins, its handling right across the world.
"Because we've had a circumstance where hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions of people have lost their jobs, billions of people had their lives disrupted, and the least the world can expect is an inquiry that allows us to learn the lessons so that we can try to avoid a repeat of this in the future."