EU chief backs investigation with China into origin

The president of the European Commission backed calls for an investigation into the origin of the new coronavirus and said China should be involved in the process. 

Lawmakers in countries like Germany, Sweden and Australia have called for a probe into how the virus started, which has so far infected over 3.2 million people and killed over 230,000. 

Speaking to CNBC, Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive arm, said she would like to see China work together with her organization, and others, to get to the bottom of exactly how it emerged.

“I think this is for all of us important, I mean for the whole world it is important. You never know when the next virus is starting, so we all want for the next time, we have learned our lesson and we’ve established a system of early warning that really functions and the whole world has to contribute to that,” she told Geoff Cutmore in an exclusive interview Thursday.

She called for more transparency in the future and said governments needed to learn lessons from the current crisis.

“One of the lessons learned from this pandemic is that we need more robust data, overall, and we need more centralized than an entity that is analyzing those data so that the early warning mechanism is way better,” she said.

“For example, at the level of the European Union, we know that we need a more robust data system for such situations as we see it right now with the coronavirus. And for building up a system that is, that you can count on.”

China criticized

The new strain of coronavirus, known as Covid-19, was first reported in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

While China has deployed medics and sent equipment to nations struggling with the coronavirus overseas, the country has faced criticism over its own handling of the virus, which experts believe originated in a wildlife market, or wet market.

We did not cover up anything, and did not delay any efforts.

Le Yucheng

Chinese Vice Premier 

In late January, Chinese authorities announced a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals in wet markets, supermarkets, restaurants and e-commerce platforms — but experts and wildlife organizations have called for a permanent ban to help prevent future pandemics.

China has also been criticized for a lack of transparency throughout the outbreak, amid claims that Beijing was too slow to respond. The WHO has cautioned against blaming individual countries for the spread of Covid-19, warning that pointing fingers at nations with a high number of cases could discourage accurate reporting on domestic outbreaks.

China has denied any wrongdoing. In an interview with NBC Tuesday, Chinese Vice Premier Le Yucheng said: “China has been open, transparent and responsible in its Covid-19 response. We did not cover up anything, and did not delay any efforts. We have already publicized the timeline of how we have shared the information on Covid-19.”

Le Yucheng added that there is no international law that supports blaming a country simply for being the first to report a disease. “Neither does history offer any such precedent,” he said.

In the United States, President Donald Trump said Thursday, without offering any evidence, that he has a high degree of confidence that the coronavirus outbreak originated from a laboratory in China. His comments came after the top spy agency in the U.S. said that the country’s collective intelligence community did not believe the virus was manmade or genetically modified.

EU-China relations

When pressed on whether a probe could lead to a weakening of relations with China, von der Leyen disagreed that this would be the case: “No, I don’t think so, because it’s all on our own interest. I mean, this this pandemic has caused so much damage,” she told CNBC.

“So it’s in our own interest, of every country, that we are better prepared the next time. We will, we do not know when such a crisis occurs again, but we should be better prepared now.”

Her comments come at a time when the European Commission has been under pressure for allegedly softening the tone of a disinformation report around the coronavirus.

The institution has denied succumbing to pressure from Beijing, but its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has not denied that China had expressed concerns about the report, Politico reported.

—CNBC’s Chloe Taylor contributed to this article.

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