Australia, U.S. leaders discuss investigation into coronavirus pandemic

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought support for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic in phone calls with U.S. President Donald Trump, and the German and French leaders overnight, the government said on Wednesday.

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Australia’s push for an independent review of the origins and spread of the pandemic, including the response of the World Health Organization (WHO), has drawn sharp criticism from China, which has accused Australian lawmakers of taking instructions from the United States.

The new coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has spread around the world infecting some 2.3 million people and killing nearly 160,000, according to Reuters calculations.

Morrison said on Twitter he had “a very constructive discussion” with Trump on the two nation’s health responses to COVID-19 and the need to get economies up and running.

“We also talked about the WHO & working together to improve the transparency & effectiveness of the international responses to pandemics,” he tweeted.

Morrison also spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron by phone, his office said.

The White House has been fiercely critical of China and the WHO, and has withdrawn U.S. funding from the United Nations agency.

Senior Australian lawmakers have also called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, and questioned Beijing’s transparency over a pandemic now paralysing the world.

China’s embassy in Canberra said in a statement late on Tuesday that Australian lawmakers were acting as the mouthpiece of Trump.

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“These days, certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China,” a statement for the embassy said.

Bilateral ties between Australia and China have soured in recent years, with Canberra accusing Beijing of meddling in its domestic affairs and raising concerns about what it sees as China’s growing influence in the Pacific region.

Diplomatic relations with China worsened after the Australian government became the first country to exclude telecoms equipment maker Huawei Technologies [HWT.UL] from its 5G network.

Still, China is Australia’s largest trading partner, buying more than one-third of the country’s total exports and sending more than a million tourists and students there each year.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Australia maintains “a good relationship at the commercial level with China” and local jobs relied on this.

He told the Australian Broadcasting Corp attacks by Chinese officials on Australian lawmakers were “unwanted and unjustified”.

Australia has just over 6,600 cases of the virus nationally, with the death toll rising to 74 overnight when a 75-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman died in New South Wales state.

Australia has for more than a month imposed tough social distancing restrictions, closed it borders to all non-residents and forced locals returning from overseas into quarantine.

The restrictions have severely slowed the spread of the virus, prompting plans to start re-opening schools and hospital beds for non-urgent surgeries.

Local lawmakers have also eased some curbs, with Australia’s iconic Bondi Beach to partially reopen next week. – Reuters

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