New Delhi: China caused “significant delay” in releasing information about Covid-19, which led to “considerable frustration” among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the deadly virus outbreak, an Associated Press report has revealed.
The extensive report, based on documents, interviews and internal recordings, said Tuesday that despite internal frustration among World Health Organization (WHO) officials, the multilateral body publicly praised China for its timely and transparent response against Covid-19 and thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately”.
Recordings of internal meetings held by the UN health agency found that China delayed giving out detailed data on patients and cases by two weeks. Moreover, Chinese health officials remained silent despite three labs independently decoding the full sequences of the coronavirus, said the report.
The first decoding of the full genome by a Chinese government lab was conducted on 2 January, but WHO declared a global health emergency only on 30 January. In this period, the outbreak had spread by a factor of 100 to 200 times, said the report, quoting retrospect infection data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
WHO ‘stuck’ in the middle
The AP report comes amid US President Donald Trump’s announcement of termination of US’ ties with the WHO and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s $2 billion aid to the agency to strengthen its response to the coronavirus.
“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,” said the report.
The recordings accessed by the AP found that China kept WHO “in the dark” by giving minimal information in the first week of January. However, WHO publicly praised China in the hopes of gaining more information.
The UN health agency officials debated on how to press China for detailed information and genetic sequences without angering the authorities.
Under international law, the WHO is expected to share information and alert member countries in case of a global crisis. However, Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO representative in China, told AP that the agency couldn’t indulge China’s wish to sign off on information before telling other countries because “that is not respectful of our responsibilities”.
In the second week of January, the agency officials were worried that this might be a repeat of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China in 2002. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies programme, told AP that the best way to “protect China” was for the agency to do its independent data analysis.
Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said, “It’s obvious that we could have saved more lives and avoided many, many deaths if China and WHO had acted faster.”
However, Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health professor at the University of Sydney, said if WHO had pushed too much, it may have run the risk of getting kicked out by China.
Delay in release of genome sequence
According to the AP report, on 27 December 2019, Vision Medicals, a lab in China, had “pieced together” the genome of coronavirus that had striking similarities to SARS. Later, the lab shared its findings with Wuhan officials and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.
On 30 December 2019, health officials in Wuhan raised warnings of an “unusual pneumonia”. A day later, the WHO first learned about these cases from an open-source platform that looks for intelligence on outbreaks.
The WHO requested more information on these cases on 1 January. China replied two days later that there had been 44 cases but no deaths. By 2 January, Chinese scientists had fully decoded the genome to know that it was a never seen before virus. However, the National Health Commission in China on 3 January issued a confidential notice demanding labs to destroy their samples.
Three state labs had independently decoded full sequences of the virus and the Chinese health officials still chose to remain silent, said the report. Meanwhile, WHO publicly said that investigations were still underway.
On 5 January, a virologist from the Shanghai Public Clinical Health Centre warned that this virus was likely to be infectious. On the same day, WHO, on the basis of preliminary information from China, told the world there was no evidence of transmissions.
WHO chief’s trip to China
Chinese officials were “jolted” when WHO announced that Thailand had confirmed a case of the novel coronavirus on 13 January, said the AP report.
This prompted a confidential teleconference among China’s top health officials ordering the country to prepare for a pandemic. Even as the Chinese CDC internally declared a level on emergency, officials maintained that the chances of transmissions between humans were low.
In this period, the WHO went “back and forth”, first claiming that there was limited transmission, but later saying that there is “no clear evidence” of transmission.
On 20 January, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the “timely publication of epidemic information and deepening of international cooperation”. Despite this, WHO officials struggled to obtain data from China. On the same day, the UN agency dispatched a small team of officials to Wuhan.
WHO representative in China Galea said their Chinese counterparts during this time were “talking openly and consistently” about human-to-human transmission.
On 22 January, the WHO held a committee to decide whether they should declare a global health emergency. A few inconclusive meetings later, the agency officials decided against it. A day later, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the spread of the novel coronavirus as “limited”.
The next few days witnessed an explosion of Covid-19 cases in China. However, the administration didn’t release detailed data on the same still.
Tedros made an “extraordinary trip” to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping on 28 January. The report noted that “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”.
At the end of his trip, Tedros called China’s commitment “incredible”. The following day, WHO declared an international health emergency.
Tedros again praised China and its cooperation. “We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing … It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries,” he had said.