Millions around the world have pondered how the WHO could have possibly been so completely duped by Beijing during the early days of the outbreak in January, when the organization parroted lies about the virus and praised Beijing as a “model” of pandemic response. Prior reports by the Associated Press and other Western media organizations have exposed how Beijing withheld critical information about the virus (including evidence of human-to-human spread) for days while China gobbled up all the PPE and other critical medical supplies.
On Tuesday, as the US heals from a long weekend of violence and unrest, the AP has published a new report based on the details of a never-before-reported internal call where WHO higher-ups discussed what to do about China’s obstinance, fearing a re-run of SARS. The recording reveals that Beijing didn’t immediately cooperate with the WHO, as the WHO had previously claimed, but instead dragged its feet, much to the consternation of several top officials at the UN-linked NGO.
Not only did the CCP deliberately suppress critical info about the outbreak in Wuhan (identities and other patient-related data), but Beijing also withheld a map of the virus’s genome for roughly a week after researchers finished mapping it, among other transgressions (Remember when the WHO praised China’s decision to swiftly map and share the virus genome as unassailable evidence that Beijing cares about accountability?)
When China finally released the information to the WHO, they apparently only did so because a team of Chinese researchers had shared the information with another third party.
Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus. It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately,” and said its work and commitment to transparency were “very impressive, and beyond words.”
But behind the scenes, it was a much different story, one of significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, The Associated Press has found.
Despite the plaudits, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.
Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11. Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.
In fact, the WHO’s congratulatory approach during the early days of the outbreak was part of a strategy to coax more information out of the government in Beijing. During transcripts of the call, American staffers at the WHO (the likely source of these leaks) complained that Beijing was giving them information “15 minutes before it appears on CCTV.”
WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government, the recordings obtained by the AP suggest. Privately, they complained in meetings the week of Jan. 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.
“We’re going on very minimal information,” said American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, now WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, in one internal meeting. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” said WHO’s top official in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, referring to the state-owned China Central Television, in another meeting.
The story behind the early response to the virus comes at a time when the U.N. health agency is under siege, and has agreed to an independent probe of how the pandemic was handled globally. After repeatedly praising the Chinese response early on, U.S. President Donald Trump has blasted WHO in recent weeks for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the coronavirus crisis. He cut ties with the organization on Friday, jeopardizing the approximately $450 million the U.S. gives every year as WHO’s biggest single donor.
Perhaps the most interesting segment of the AP’s reporting came two seconds before the agency appeared to dismiss the fact that China’s prevarications during the early days of the virus violated international law (it’s okay since the WHO has no enforcement powers).
At one point, the AP insisted, apropos of nothing, that the leaked transcript doesn’t support “either the US or China”, but merely offers a picture of an organization in turmoil. Somehow, we doubt this disclaimer will dissuade Trump and the China hawks in his administration from citing the report as just the latest evidence justifying their suspicions of Beijing.
The new information does not support the narrative of either the U.S. or China, but instead portrays an agency now stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limits to its own authority. Although international law obliges countries to report information to WHO that could have an impact on public health, the U.N. agency has no enforcement powers and cannot independently investigate epidemics within countries. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member states.
WHO staffers debated how to press China for gene sequences and detailed patient data without angering authorities, worried about losing access and getting Chinese scientists into trouble. Under international law, WHO is required to quickly share information and alerts with member countries about an evolving crisis. Galea noted WHO could not indulge China’s wish to sign off on information before telling other countries because “that is not respectful of our responsibilities.”
After all, while we might not possess any direct evidence that the novel coronavirus leaked from a biolab in Wuhan, it’s now become abundantly cleared that Beijing lied, and people died, and the WHO failed in its mission to safeguard the public health of the most vulnerable nations.