By The Associated Press
AP, June 2, 2020
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.
Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11.
On Jan. 13, WHO announced that Thailand had a confirmed case of the virus, jolting Chinese officials.
The next day, in a confidential teleconference, China’s top health official ordered the country to prepare for a pandemic, calling the outbreak the “most severe challenge since SARS in 2003”, as the AP previously reported. Chinese CDC staff across the country began screening, isolating, and testing for cases, turning up hundreds across the country.
Yet even as the Chinese CDC internally declared a level one emergency, the highest level possible, Chinese officials still said the chance of sustained transmission between humans was low.
WHO went back and forth. Van Kerkhove said in a press briefing that “it is certainly possible there is limited human-to-human transmission.” But hours later, WHO seemed to backtrack, and tweeted that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” – a statement that later became fodder for critics.
A high-ranking official in WHO’s Asia office, Dr. Liu Yunguo, who attended medical school in Wuhan, flew to Beijing to make direct, informal contacts with Chinese officials, recordings show. Liu’s former classmate, a Wuhan doctor, had alerted him that pneumonia patients were flooding the city’s hospitals, and Liu pushed for more experts to visit Wuhan, according to a public health expert familiar with the matter.
On Jan. 20, the leader of an expert team returning from Wuhan, renowned government infectious diseases doctor Zhong Nanshan, declared publicly for the first time that the new virus was spreading between people. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the “timely publication of epidemic information and deepening of international cooperation.”
On Jan. 22, WHO convened an independent committee to determine whether to declare a global health emergency. After two inconclusive meetings where experts were split, they decided against it — even as Chinese officials ordered Wuhan sealed in the biggest quarantine in history. The next day, WHO chief Tedros publicly described the spread of the new coronavirus in China as “limited.”
For days, China didn’t release much detailed data, even as its case count exploded. Beijing city officials were alarmed enough to consider locking down the capital, according to a medical expert with direct knowledge of the matter.
On Jan. 28, Tedros and top experts, including Ryan, made an extraordinary trip to Beijing to meet President Xi and other senior Chinese officials. It is highly unusual for WHO’s director-general to directly intervene in the practicalities of outbreak investigations. Tedros’ staffers had prepared a list of requests for information.
“It could all happen and the floodgates open, or there’s no communication,” Grein said in an internal meeting while his boss was in Beijing. “We’ll see.”
At the end of Tedros’ trip, WHO announced China had agreed to accept an international team of experts. In a press briefing on Jan. 29, Tedros heaped praise on China, calling its level of commitment “incredible.”
The next day, WHO finally declared an international health emergency. Once again, Tedros thanked China, saying nothing about the earlier lack of cooperation.
“We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing,” Tedros said. “It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries.”
By Don McCanne, M.D.
President Trump has recently condemned both China and the World Health Organization for their alleged delays and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has cut off US funding for WHO and has stated he would make good on his threat to withdraw from the organization.
AP’s global investigative team has described the alleged delays by China and the frustrations of WHO’s leadership which occurred in January, before the seriousness of the infectious process was recognized, and long before WHO’s March 11, 2020 declaration of the Novel Coronavirus Disease pandemic. More details can be found in the full article at the link above. Although the reporters do seem to be somewhat critical of China’s decisions, it is difficult to see significant signs of incompetence or neglect considering how early it was in trying to understand this new disease.
Compare that to the United States. This is now June, and, so far, our federal government has provided very little substantive support to combating this horrendous pandemic, while seemingly passively accepting the sacrifice of our health care workers and professionals dedicated to caring for these patients, not to mention the deaths of over 100,000 US residents. China and WHO have been far ahead of us in their response, but, instead of cooperating with them, our president wants to withdraw. The reasons are not clear, but he seems to be waiting for the development of drugs and vaccines in the private sector which he and some in his administration believe will be very successful from a business perspective if they can just beat China to the world market.
This pandemic shouldn’t simply be looked upon as an opportunity to control pharmaceutical markets and charge the highest prices the market will bear. It’s a pandemic. We should be working with the rest of the world to bring it under control, and that means that we should be working closely with the organization that exists for this very purpose – the World Health Organization. Mr. Trump, please, the world needs us to be involved.
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