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No longer a joke: Why Australia’s COVID-19 inquiry campaign won the day

This was a historic move by Australia.

Overnight, almost a month to the day since Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne first lobbied for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, the motion to establish one passed the World Health Assembly unanimously.

There were no objections. The resolution had the largest number of co-sponsors in history -137 countries in total for a motion that will examine both the origins of the coronavirus and the role of the World Health Organisation.

The last time Australia had played such a prominent international role was in 2015, when then foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop led calls to establish an MH17 inquiry after 298 people were shot out of the sky by a Russian-Ukrainian missile. The coronavirus has killed more than 300,000 and decimated the global economy.

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China accused Australia of running a politically motivated campaign in April. Two trade strikes would follow in early May. They were of course, unrelated, we were told. About $1 billion in the barley and beef trade is now affected.

By Sunday, more than 60 countries had signed on as co-sponsors of the resolution. Its fate was sealed. For Beijing, it was much more preferable for the European Union to be seen as leaders of the resolution than those upstarts Down Under.

Europe has gravitas that Australia does not. Our negotiators recognised this early when they latched the first terms for an independent inquiry onto the draft of a European Union motion on April 29. It was happy to concede the lead, allowing countries to back the call without choosing “sides” in the rancorous three-way dispute between China, the US and Australia. China became one of the last dozen co-sponsors on Tuesday night, just before the vote.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian emphasised the European Union’s role this week after being asked about Australia’s push. “The EU submitted a draft resolution on COVID-19 to this year’s WHA, and the parties reached consensus on the content of the draft resolution after thorough discussion,” he said.

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“This is a slap to the face to countries like Australia – the most active player in pushing forward a so-called independent probe into China over the coronavirus outbreak, which was then rejected by the international community,” China’s international state media arm The Global Times said on Tuesday.

Behind the bluster, the reality is found in the actual motion.

The final text of two key clauses in the motion, OP9.6 and OP9.10 are identical to the draft motion agreed to by the European Union and Australia over the weekend. The same document was signed by China on Tuesday.

They establish a mechanism to identify the source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population and “an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the WHO’s response to COVID-19” at the “earliest appropriate moment”.

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Compromise and negotiation saw any direct reference to China removed and terms such as “investigation” transformed into “review”, but the substance of Australia’s argument largely remains intact.

In fact it is far stronger now that the one initially agreed to by the European Union member states in April. That motion would have focused much more broadly on the “lessons learnt from the international health response to COVID-19”.

No doubt questions still remain. China will use its weight, funding of the WHO and influence over developing countries to interpret the “earliest appropriate moment” as only once the pandemic has passed. That could be years away.

Independence is also a vexed issue.

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The footnotes of the motion reveal the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme will be engaged “as appropriate” to oversee inquiry into the WHO response.

The existing WHO committee consists of seven members drawn from national governments, non-governmental organisations, and the UN system, outside of the WHO itself.

Can they be truly independent inside an organisation that has shown itself to be caught and occasionally paralysed by the rising rhetoric and volatile funding of its two largest members?

The significance of clause OP9.6 of the resolution should not be understated. It allows for scientific and collaborative field missions to enter China to determine the origin of the disease and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, those sites where the virus makes the fateful leap from bat or bird or pangolin to human.

China, which is not named, will argue that the same inspectors should be allowed to enter the US, having pushed the unfounded theory that the disease might have originated there.

The US will likewise argue that inspectors should be allowed into the Wuhan lab, a theory that is also unproven.

So they should now that both superpowers have signed the motion.

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