Beijing sat on vital information related to the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) for weeks, according to a new report based on several recordings recently obtained by the Associated Press.
As per the report, the Chinese government did not immediately cooperate with the World Health Organization (WHO), contrary to what the latter organization had previously claimed, but instead opted to drag its feet, frustrating top officials at the NGO.
The news organization noted that Beijing not only deliberately suppressed the release of critical information regarding the initial outbreak in Wuhan, it also withheld a map of the virus’s genome for about a week after researchers from three different government laboratories finished mapping it.
As relayed by the recordings, China only decided to release the information to the WHO after a team of Chinese researchers shared the information with another third party ?– a markedly different scenario from the one pushed by the United Nations health agency, who publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the novel coronavirus.
This constant public lauding from the health agency, the recordings suggest, was part of the WHO’s plan to coax out more information from Beijing, with WHO staffers ?– reportedly the source of the leaks ?– heard complaining about the Chinese government’s habit of providing information piecemeal.
“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” said Gauden Galea, the organization’s top official in China, referring to the state-owned China Central Television, which is the first media agency to broadcast new information from Chinese authorities.
As detailed in the AP report, the delay caused by China in the release of the genome effectively stalled the recognition of COVID-19’s spread to other countries, along with the global development of critical treatments. Not only that, but the lack of detailed patient data ?– again, critical information withheld by China – also made it even harder to determine how quickly the coronavirus was spreading globally.
“We’re going on very minimal information,” American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s current technical lead for COVID-19, said in one internal meeting. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
As per the report, WHO staffers, aside from constantly debating on how to press Beijing for the valuable gene sequences, as well as detailed patient data that can be used to address the pandemic, also worried about the possibility of getting Chinese scientists into trouble.
According to the AP, it was Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, who told colleagues it was time to “shift gears” and apply more pressure on China unless they want to see a repeat of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 that infected over 8,000 and killed nearly 800 people worldwide.
The SARS outbreak, much like the current COVID-19 pandemic, started in China.
The AP report came in the wake of Washington’s decision to cut funding for the WHO ?– a decision the Trump administration arrived at after weeks of blasting the organization for allegedly colluding with Beijing to hide the extent of the coronavirus crisis.
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” President Donald Trump said during a press briefing at the Rose Garden, noting that the organization failed to comply with the U.S. government’s requests for reforms.
Trump previously sent a letter to the WHO, demanding that the organization make “major substantive improvements.” The Trump team, however, did not explain what those improvements and reforms are.
The U.S. is currently the biggest funder of the global health body, paying about USD 450 million in membership dues, as well as voluntary contributions for the body’s specific programs.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has confirmed Trump’s move.
“The U.S. government’s and its people’s contribution and generosity toward global health over many decades has been immense, and it has made a great difference in public health all around the world. It is WHO’s wish for this collaboration to continue,” Tedros said.
He declined to give any more comments.
China, meanwhile, as a response to the new report, said the AP was “seriously inconsistent with the facts” in its investigation.
At a press briefing Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, decried the points presented by the AP report, noting that “the facts and data are in plain sight” and that Beijing acted “with openness, transparency and a sense of responsibility.”
Zhao, however, did not directly address the comments made by WHO officials in the recordings.
As of this writing, the coronavirus has been confirmed to have infected 6,740,361 people across the world, of whom 394,984 have died.