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The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday kicked off its first ever virtual assembly, but fears abound that US-China tensions could derail the strong action needed to address the coronavirus pandemic.
The World Health Assembly, which has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days, Monday and Tuesday, is expected to focus almost solely on COVID-19, which in a matter of months has killed more than 310,000 globally, and infected nearly 4.7 million.
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the event, lamenting that a number of countries had ignored the recommendations of the WHO.
"Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price," he warned in a video address.
WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was also due to address the virtual assembly, as were a number of heads of state, including Xi Jinping of China, government chiefs and health ministers.
Tedros said on Friday the event would be "one of the most important (World Health Assemblies) since we were founded in 1948".
But the chance of reaching agreement on global measures to address the crisis could be threatened by steadily deteriorating relations between the world's two largest economies over the pandemic.
US President Donald Trump last week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak first emerged late last year, over its role in the spread of COVID-19, and has repeatedly made unproven allegations that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.
He has also suspended funding to the WHO over accusations it initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and was kowtowing to Beijing.
Despite the tensions, countries hope to adopt a resolution by consensus urging a joint response to the pandemic.
The resolution, tabled by the European Union, calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response to the coronavirus crisis.
Consultations around the text concluded last week after "tough" negotiations, according to Nora Kronig, who heads the international affairs division of Switzerland's public health office.
China will provide $2 billion over two years to fight the coronavirus pandemic, President Xi Jinping said Monday, rallying around the The WHO and its efforts even as the Trump administration has slashed funding for the UN health agency.
The European Union's 27-member bloc and other countries, meanwhile, called for an independent evaluation of WHO's initial response to the coronavirus pandemic "to review experience gained and lessons learned.”
In a speech to the World Health Assembly, Xi said China had provided all relevant outbreak data to WHO and other countries, including the virus' genetic sequence, "in a most timely fashion."
"We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation,” Xi said. "We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”
China supports a comprehensive review of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic led by the WHO after the virus that causes the disease is brought under control, Xi Jinping said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called on Monday for giving the WHO more teeth to combat emerging diseases that threaten global health.
Moon, in remarks to the WHO's annual ministerial assembly being held online, said: "We must update the WHO International Health Regulations and other relevant norms and augment them with binding legal force".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the coronavirus pandemic would be overcome more quickly if the world works together to tackle it, adding that it was necessary to look at whether the World Health Organization's processes could be improved.
"The World Health Organization is the legitimate, global institution where all the threads come together. Because that is the case we have to keep looking at how we can further improve its functioning," Merkel said in a video message at a WHO meeting, adding that this included ensuring it has sustainable financing.
The head of the World Health Organization-led team in the central Chinese city of Wuhan probing the origins of COVID-19 said on Tuesday that cold chain transmission of the virus is a possibility and warrants further investigation.
The group was driven to the Jinyintan Hospital, one of the city’s first to deal with patients in early 2020 suffering from a then-unknown virus, as the horrors of the virus emerged in the central Chinese city.
The mission, delayed by China and weighed down by political baggage, has a remit to explore how the virus jumped from animal to human. Experts say the Huanan market still plays a role in tracing the origins of the virus, since the first cluster of cases was identified there.
Most scientists reject the hypothesis, but some speculate that a virus captured from the wild could have figured in experiments at the lab to test the risks of a human spillover and then escaped via an infected staff member.
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