New Zealand experts not yet finished analysing World Health Organization COVID-19 origins report a week on

A week on from its release, New Zealand experts have not yet finished analysing a World Health Organization (WHO) report into the origins of COVID-19.

The long-anticipated study into the SARS-CoV-2 virus was released last Tuesday following a mission to Wuhan, China by a team of international experts. While inconclusive about the virus' source, the report found it was "extremely unlikely" the virus originated from a laboratory.

Commenting on the report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the investigators in China had "difficulties" accessing some data and made it clear he expects "more timely and comprehensive data-sharing" in the future. 

Within hours of the report's publication, a number of countries - including New Zealand's Five Eyes partners - released a joint statement expressing concern about delays to the study and the experts' lack of access to some information. 

But New Zealand did not join up to that statement. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Newshub last Wednesday that Kiwi experts were still analysing the report and "we want to make sure we understand the science before making any comment".

Newshub asked the minister nearly a week later if our experts had finished studying the report that a multitude of other countries have already commented on.

"Not as yet, and as I have already said publicly, I will wait to take advice on the content of the report and what response New Zealand should form in relation to it," Mahuta said on Tuesday.

She defended the length of time New Zealand has taken with it.

"We got around about 36 hours notice of the report, and in terms of making a response, it was my decision to ensure that we had an informed response. I would much rather, because it is technical in nature, that we have our technicians having a look at the contents of the report before we respond."

China insists it "presented item by item raw data of particular concern" and that the WHO "gave positive comments on the joint research, stressing a level of openness they hadn't anticipated".

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty.

New Zealand's absence from the joint statement has attracted attention domestically and overseas, with commentators wondering whether it showed Aotearoa didn't want to criticise China on the issue.

Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China, questioned "at what point does NZ's quiet shift on China look more like timidity, even appeasement?", the UK's The Spectator asked "why is New Zealand afraid of criticising China?", while The Australian said New Zealand had shut "its eyes to appease China". 

Conservative SkyNews host Andrew Bolt unleashed on Aotearoa on Thursday night, accusing New Zealand of "backstabbing" Australia and "sucking up" to China.

Concerns about New Zealand's position also caught the eye of Chinese state media outlet the Global Times, which published an opinion piece on Tuesday morning headlined 'Australia pressures New Zealand to toe the line of Washington'.

But Mahuta says our absence from the joint statement isn't about not trying to upset Beijing, which has imposed harsh trade tariffs on Australia for its criticism.

"Not at all. As I said publicly, we received the report with quite a quick turnaround in terms of a response and my judgement was to receive advice from those officials, because it is technical in nature, in order to form a response."

Despite commentators suggesting otherwise, New Zealand has not been entirely silent on key issues with China.

It's joined several international statements, including with Australia, expressing concerns about Beijing's interference in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the treatment of the Uighurs with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 and in March said she will continue to highlight our concerns

While Australia and the United States led the calls early last year for an investigation into the deadly virus' origins, Ardern eventually added her support.

"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 told The AM Show in May.

"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."