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Australia pushes for independent inquiry over COVID-19 origins in China

A health worker with the Israeli national emergency service, Magen David Adam, wears protective gear while taking swabs to test for COVID-19 at a drive-through testing center in East Jerusalem on August 26. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

April 29 (UPI) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison endorsed an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus on Wednesday amid rising tensions between his nation and China.

During a press briefing in Canberra, Morrison told reporters his government will continue pushing for an independent review of the virus' origins and China's early handling of the outbreak.

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"This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary," Morrison said. "Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again. I don't think this is a remarkable suggestion."

His comments came as the worldwide COVID-19 death toll hit more than 224,000, with 3.2 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been at least 958,000 recoveries.

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In Australia, there have been 6,746 confirmed cases, 90 deaths and at least 5,600 recoveries.

Tensions between Australia and China have been climbing since the former joined the United States in calling for an independent review.

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In response, China's ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, warned earlier this week the escalation may lead to a Chinese boycott of Australian products -- remarks Canberra called "a threat of economic coercion" and which led Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson to call Cheng.

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On Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Australia released details of the phone call under the pretext of correcting "misleading" statements concerning the exchange in news media and said Adamson "admitted it is not the time to commence the review."

The details said Cheng called on Australia "to put aside ideological bias, stop political games and do more to promote the bilateral relations."

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement it will not breach long-standing diplomatic courtesies and professional practices to comment but noted "with regret" the Chinese Embassy's release of the call's details.

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China state-run media has also leveled comments against the Morrison administration's push for an investigation as "a panda-bashing campaign." Asked about the comments on Wednesday, Morrison said it's a position he won't abandon.

"Australia will do what is in our interest, in the global interest and we will, of course, continue to support moves to ensure there is a proper independent assessment of what has occurred here," he said.

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Countries in Europe, meanwhile, are announcing plans to lift restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Director for Health Emergencies Fernando Simon said they plan to lift restrictions gradually, with Phase 1 coming Monday. The first phase will allow some small businesses to reopen and professional sports training to resume. During this phase, seniors will also be allowed to leave their homes again.

Sanchez said the plan is for life to resume as normal by the end of June. He said he doesn't plan to implement a rule requiring people to wear face coverings because too many people are unable, including people with troubles breathing and anxiety, as well as children.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were nearly 237,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Spain, with 132,900 recoveries and at least 24,000 deaths.

In Switzerland, certain businesses, including restaurants, and cultural and sports institutions, will be allowed to reopen May 11, Federal President Simonetta Sommaruga announced. Schools will also open, border restrictions will ease and public transportation will increase on that day.

Further restrictions will ease June 8.

Switzerland has nearly 30,000 known cases, with 1,700 deaths and 22,600 recoveries.

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Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said it's too soon to give an exact date on when his country will begin to lift restrictions. Russia has reported nearly 100,000 confirmed cases, 10,200 recoveries and 972 deaths.

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