New Zealand has explained its absence from a list of nations which have jointly expressed concern a World Health Organization (WHO) study into COVID-19's origins was impeded.
The WHO released a long-anticipated report on Tuesday into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its transmission within China before spreading globally, so far infecting more than 128 million people worldwide and killing nearly 3 million. It followed a fact-finding mission earlier this year by a team of international experts to Wuhan, China, where the virus was first detected.
While the study left many questions unresolved - such as the exact source of the virus, and how it was introduced to the Huanan market - and more assessments have been called for, it did state that it's "extremely unlikely" the virus originated from a laboratory.
Addressing the report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the international team which analysed the origins "expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data". He said he expects "more timely and comprehensive data-sharing" in the future.
Fourteen countries released a joint statement on Wednesday "expressing shared concerns" that the study was "significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples".
The list of nations which signed the statement includes Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and Japan - but not New Zealand.
The statement said there "must now be a renewed commitment by WHO and all Member States to access, transparency, and timeliness" and it was critical for experts to have "full access" to data.
"With all data in hand, the international community may independently assess COVID-19 origins, learn valuable lessons from this pandemic, and prevent future devastating consequences from outbreaks of disease," it said.
Responding to questions from Newshub about why New Zealand didn't release the statement, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said Aotearoa needed more time to analyse the WHO report before commenting.
"New Zealand is pleased that the report has now been released," the spokesperson said.
"Our technical experts are currently analysing the report. As this is a scientific report, we want to make sure we understand the science before making any comment. We will wait until our experts have finished analysing the report."
New Zealand's absence from the statement earlier raised eyebrows on social media, including from Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China. She questioned at "what point does NZ's quiet shift on China look more like timidity, even appeasement?"
It's not the first time in recent months that Aotearoa has been absent from a joint statement relating to China's activities. In January, New Zealand was the only Five Eyes country not to sign a statement condemning China for its arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Mahuta instead expressed New Zealand's concern separately.
New Zealand has, however, released a number of other statements with its partners on China, including last week.
The investigation into COVID-19's origins stems from a May 2020 resolution adopted by WHO Member States to identify the source of the virus and how it was introduced into the human population.
Australia and the United States led the calls for an investigation. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last May that Aotearoa supported evaluating COVID-19's origins, but didn't want to see a "witch hunt".
"I think everyone would be of the view that if we want to prevent this from happening again, we do need to learn lessons," she said. "What I am very clear on is that we're not interested in blame or any kind of witch hunt - we're just interested in learning and I think most New Zealanders would agree with that."
Responding to criticism of China's transparency with the WHO report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China had acted responsibly.
"The Chinese side presented item by item raw data of particular concern. The WHO and international experts gave positive comments on the joint research, stressing a level of openness they hadn't anticipated," he said.
"The drafting of the origin-tracing report has been carried out between experts from both China and WHO, and conclusions have been reached through repeated research in a science-based way."