Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
The World Health Organisation has denied that Taiwan mentioned human-to-human transmission. Photo: AFP

Taiwan and World Health Organisation trade barbs over early coronavirus warnings

  • Global health body accused of playing word games after denying that island had asked if virus could be transmitted between humans
  • Taiwan, which is not a WHO member, had asked for information on December 31 but received no reply

Tension flared again on Saturday as Taiwan accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of playing word games in a dispute over details it sought in an email querying if the new coronavirus could be transmitted between people.

Taiwan is not a WHO member, because of objections from mainland China, which claims the island as its own and deems it to have no right to membership of international bodies.

Such an approach, Taiwan says, deprived it of timely information to fight the virus, and it accused the WHO of having ignored its communications early in the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected 1.6 million people and killed 100,000 worldwide.

Last month, Taiwan said it had received no reply from the WHO to a December 31 query for information on the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, including whether it could be transmitted between people.

The WHO has said the email it received made no mention of human-to-human transmission.

Taiwan fights to save its tourism industry amid battering by coronavirus and Beijing

In Taipei on Saturday, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung quoted the text of the December 31 email written in English that the government sent to the WHO.

“News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, China,” Chen said, reading the email.

“Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not to be Sars, [severe acute respiratory syndrome] however the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment,” he continued.

“I would greatly appreciate if you have relevant information to share with us.”

In a statement sent to Reuters on Saturday, the WHO said, “We have asked how they communicated this to us, because we are only aware of that one email that makes no mention of human-to-human transmission, but they haven’t replied.”

Sars was caused by a previously unknown virus believed to have emerged from the wet markets of China’s southern province of Guangdong in 2002-2003 that eventually killed 774 people in nearly 30 countries.

Taiwan fights to save its tourism industry amid battering by coronavirus and Beijing

Chen said any medical professional would know the circumstances requiring isolation, and added that the WHO was quibbling over the wording.

“If being treated in isolation is not a warning, then what is?” he asked.

Mainland China confirmed virus transmission between people on January 20. On January 12, the WHO had said there was no clear evidence of such transmission.

However, Taiwan, suspicious that information emerging from Beijing was not accurate, had begun screening arrivals from Wuhan on December 31.

It also activated its emergency operations centre on January 2, which experts say allowed it to effectively control the early spread of the virus.

Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. The report also includes exclusive access to webinars to interact with C-level executives from leading China AI companies (via live Q&A sessions). Offer valid until 31 May 2020.