COVID-19 lockdowns may be easing across the world, but diplomatic tensions over the origins of the pandemic are not.
Both US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo say they have seen evidence that the new coronavirus could have spread from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
However, China has dismissed the claims as “groundless”, and the World Health Organization says it has received no evidence to back them up.
Other Western governments have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, an idea supported by the European Union.
But for now, the “strident” political tone used by the US administration is not helping get to the bottom of what happened, former EU diplomat to China Charles Parton told Euronews.
“It’s a bit like when (…) you start kicking someone in the shins on the one hand and then say ‘but we’d like your help’ on the other,” Parton, also a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in a live interview.
“What is most important is that a proper investigation is done by the Chinese, and with transparency to the rest of the world, so that we can work out what actually happened, how the virus developed and therefore take measures against it both in the present and in the future.”
As the war of words brews between China and the US, the EU is backing calls for an independent look into what allowed the pandemic to spread.
According to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell, a draft resolution outlining the plan will be presented at the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly on 18 May.
“They’re not pointing fingers at the moment, from what this document looks like,” says Euronews Brussels correspondent Jack Parrock, adding that the EU will be contributing to a proposal initially made by Australia.
“They want to have a discussion about exactly the origins of COVID-19, how it was allowed to spread: they want to have a sort of postmortem, for want of a better word, about where this virus came from and how to prevent it from happening in the future,” he explained.
In an interview with France’s Le Journal de Dimanche, Borrell said the probe needed to step aside “from the battlefield between China and the United States, who blame each other for the events in a bid that has only exacerbated their rivalry”.
The World Health Organization said on Monday (4 May) that the US government had not shared with it any evidence to back up its claims that the new coronavirus could have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.
“We have not received any data or specific evidence from the United States government relating to the purported origin of the virus, so from our perspective, this remains speculative,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told reporters.
He added that the WHO would be “very willing” to receive any such information the United States has. He reiterated that the evidence that the UN health agency has received so far suggest that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin.
On Sunday, Pompeo told ABC’s This Week programme that there was “a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan”.
China’s official Global Times newspaper said Pompeo was making “groundless accusations” against Beijing in an attempt to divert attention from the US administration’s own failures in dealing with the outbreak.
While the virus is believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, most scientists say it was most likely transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediary animal such as the pangolin. That has placed the focus on a wet market in the city where wildlife was sold for food.
‘Infecting the world’
Trump had previously speculated that China may have unleashed the coronavirus due to some kind of horrible “mistake”.
Speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Pompeo said he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread. But he added: “Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.”
The secretary of state appeared to be referring to previous outbreaks of respiratory viruses, like SARS, which started in China.
The Trump administration has slammed both China and the WHO over their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which first surfaced in Wuhan and has now killed more than 250,000 people worldwide. The US has also suspended funding to the WHO, which Trump has accused of behaving ”like the public relations agency for China.”
Former EU diplomat Charles Parton cautioned that politicians ought to be less hot-blooded and think more long-term.
“This won’t be the last pandemic that might come out of China,” he warned, adding that antimicrobial resistance – the rise in drug-resistant infections, for which existing antibiotics prove ineffective – posed another major health risk worldwide.
“We are going to need to work with China, so we do have to try and build trust. While we do have to counteract some of the incorrect propaganda that the Chinese are putting out, I don’t think it helps being too shrill or strident in tone,” Parton said.