US Leads Concern Over WHO-Backed COVID Report

This file photo shows the logo of the World Health Organization (WHO) written in Chinese at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva. (AFP Photo)

The United States (US) led a chorus of concern on Tuesday over a World Health Organisation (WHO)-backed report into the origins of the coronavirus in China, with accusations swirling that Beijing failed to give proper access to investigators.

The United States released a statement with 13 of its allies - Britain, Japan and Australia among them - saying the inquiry had lacked the data and samples it needed.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had earlier made a similar criticism, saying the team he dispatched to Wuhan had found it difficult to get raw data.

Neither Tedros nor the US-led statement mentioned China directly, but the country's foreign ministry hit back at the perceived criticism from the WHO chief, saying that Beijing had demonstrated "its openness, transparency and responsible attitude."

"To politicise this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins, jeopardise anti-pandemic cooperation, and cost more lives," the ministry said in a statement.

The European Union called the report a "helpful first step" but highlighted "the need for further work," urging "relevant authorities" to help.

Mike Pompeo, the former top US diplomat under Donald Trump, blasted it as a "sham" and part of a "disinformation campaign," accusing the WHO of being in cahoots with the Chinese Communist Party.

Trump had promoted a theory that the virus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, which the WHO-backed experts dismissed in their report. But Tedros stressed that "all hypotheses are open, from what I read from the report... and warrant complete and further studies." 

'Needed A Break'

The pandemic has killed nearly 2.8 million people worldwide since it first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, with several countries now battling new waves of infection.

Italy said on Tuesday it would impose a five-day quarantine on travellers arriving from other EU countries, while Germany will beef up checks along land borders to ensure people arriving have negative COVID-19 tests.

Large numbers of lockdown-weary Germans have nevertheless booked holidays to Spanish tourist island Mallorca.

"I really needed a break, it's hard to work at home without seeing anyone," said 53-year-old Birgit Leeck on one of the island's golden beaches.

Germany said Tuesday it would only deploy AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine for general use for those aged over 60.

The WHO and the EU's health watchdog have both deemed the AstraZeneca vaccine safe, but several countries have restricted its use over blood clotting fears.

In France, hospitals were under pressure after partial regional shutdowns failed to keep the number of people in intensive care below the country's second-wave peak.

'Time To Act'

World leaders on Tuesday called for a new international treaty to better fight future outbreaks and for countries to be ready if - or when - another hits. 

"Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion," they urged. 

More than 20 countries - including Germany, France, South Korea and South Africa - signed up to the plea.

Tedros urged the world to not waste any time in preparing for the next contagion, saying: "The time to act is now. The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one."

The expert report on the origins of COVID-19 concluded that the virus probably came from bats and jumped to humans from another animal. 

The experts judged it "extremely unlikely" that the virus was grown in a lab, and were also unimpressed by Beijing's theory that the virus did not originate in China at all but was imported in frozen food.

The pandemic has also rolled back years of progress towards gender equality, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) study.

Research showed that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women, who have lost jobs at a higher rate than men, and had to take on much more of the childcare burden when schools closed.

"Another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity," the WEF said in a statement. - AFP