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Head of WHO talks with China premier on Covid

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World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. AFP

Head of WHO talks with China premier on Covid

The head of the World Health Organisation met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on February 5 for talks on Covid-19, including on the stalled investigation into the pandemic’s origins.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, visiting Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, posted a picture on Twitter of the pair sitting with officials in a meeting room.

“Pleased to meet with Premier Li Keqiang. We discussed Covid-19 and the need for an aggressive effort on vaccine equity this year to vaccinate 70 per cent of all populations,” Tedros said.

“We also discussed the need for stronger collaboration on Covid-19 virus origins, rooted in science and evidence.

“I welcomed his support to strengthen WHO and discussion about a pandemic accord to advance global preparedness,” he added.

A Chinese government statement on the meeting said Li called for solidarity, cooperation and more understanding among nations to defeat the pandemic.

On tracing the origins of the virus, it said Tedros adhered to scientific principles and opposed politicising the process.

Tedros is paying his first visit to China since January 2020, in the weeks after the first cases of Covid-19 were recorded in Wuhan.

More than 370 million cases and 5.6 million deaths have since been reported to the WHO – figures it says are an underestimate.

Understanding where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid came from is seen as key to preventing future pandemics.

After much delay, a WHO team of international experts went to Wuhan in January 2021 to look into the origins of the virus in cooperation with their Chinese counterparts.

Their March 2021 joint report concluded that the most likely hypothesis was that the virus jumped from bats to humans via an intermediate animal.

They deemed a theory that it may have escaped from Wuhan’s virology laboratories “extremely unlikely”.

However, that investigation faced harsh criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory seriously.

Beijing has baulked at calls for further investigation on the ground, and has not provided access to raw data from the Wuhan laboratories that could potentially help confirm or rule out a connection.

The Geneva-based WHO has created a new team of scientists in a bid to revive the stalled probe, and to investigate other pathogens that could potentially spur future pandemics.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said the team were examining the framework needed to study any emerging pathogen; the current understanding of Covid-19’s origins; and fresh evidence from studies conducted since the March 2021 report.

“What they are looking at are the early epidemiologic studies. What do we know about those earliest suspected and known cases that were reported in China?” she told a press conference in Geneva on February 1.

“Many more studies are necessary to really understand the emergence of this virus.

“We, as WHO, won’t stop until we exhaust all avenues to better understand this.”

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