March 31 (UPI) -- After the World Health Organization released findings of its investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the United States, European Union and 13 other countries called on the health body to keep looking into the start of the pandemic.
The countries, which include Australia, Britain, Canada and South Korea, urged a second phase of investigation and expressed concern that China withheld key data from WHO investigators.
The long-awaited report, written by WHO-appointed investigators and Chinese scientists, was published Tuesday. It stated that the origins of the virus that emerged in China in December 2019 likely came from animal farms in Southeast Asia.
China has been criticized by the United States and other Western nations for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and for purportedly covering up the initial outbreak -- accusations that Beijing has rejected.
Following pushback from China, the investigation began last year after WHO members approved a resolution led by the European Union and Australia for an independent inquiry. However, WHO investigators only arrived in mid-January following a series of delays and investigated for about a month.
After the report was posted Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told member states during a briefing that Chinese withheld data.
"I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough," he said. "I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing."
The 14 nations issued their challenging statement not long after Tedros' briefing. Without mentioning China by name, the countries called on Beijing to grant "full access to pertinent human, animal and environmental data, research and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged."
The European Union issued a similar statement of support for a "science-based, transparent and independent WHO-convened global study" and expressed regret over the first study's late start, the delayed deployment of experts and "limited availability of early samples and related data."
"The report lacks crucial data, information and access," she said. "It represents a partial and incomplete picture."
China on Wednesday rejected the accusations it interfered in the probe as "absurd."
"As long as what they see does not conform to their imagination or conjecture, they will label it as results of intervention, the lack of independence and transparency," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a regular press conference. "Facts have proved that every time they make such statements, they will be slapped in the face again and again by the facts."
Concerning the U.S-led statement, Hua accused the countries of openly questioning and negating the report and pointed to it as their disregard for science in favor of "political manipulation."
"It is deeply immoral to politicize study of origins in this way," she said. "Such unpopular move will only hamper global cooperation in tracing the origins, jeopardize international anti-pandemic cooperation and cost more lives."
As the report was published, a Chinese foreign ministry representative said Beijing fully participated in the international investigation and called for other, separate investigations in other countries into the beginnings of the health crisis.
"The Chinese side offered necessary facilitation for the team's work, fully demonstrating its openness, transparency and responsible attitude," the representative said in a statement.