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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets visiting World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on January 28. Photo: Xinhua

Coronavirus: ‘WHO masked concern’ about China’s slow release of information

  • Recordings show UN agency frustrated by lack of data to assess new virus, costing the world valuable time
  • Rather than colluding with China, new documents show UN agency was largely kept in the dark
Throughout January, the World Health Organisation publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus and thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately”.

But in fact, Chinese officials sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the deadly virus for over a week after multiple government labs had fully decoded it, not sharing details key to designing tests, drugs and vaccines.

Strict controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were largely to blame, according to internal documents, emails and dozens of interviews.

Health officials only released the genome after a Chinese lab published it ahead of authorities on a virology website on January 11.

Even then, China stalled for at least two more weeks on giving WHO the details it needed, according to recordings of multiple internal meetings held by the UN health agency in January – all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.

Although the WHO continued to publicly commend China, the recordings show they were concerned China was not sharing enough information to assess the risk posed by the new virus, costing the world valuable time.

“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 one meeting.

The story behind the early response to the pandemic comes at a time when the UN health agency is under siege. US President Donald Trump cut ties with the WHO on Friday, after blasting the agency for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the epidemic.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China had always provided information to WHO and the world “in a most timely fashion”.

Dr Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation representative in China, says the agency was told some information just minutes before it was broadcast on national television. Photo: AP

The new information does not support the narrative of either the US or China, but portrays an agency now stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data.

Although international law obliges countries to report information to the WHO that could have an impact on public health, the UN agency has no enforcement powers. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member states.

But rather than colluding with China, the WHO has been found to be largely kept in the dark, as China gave it only the minimal information required. But the agency did try to portray China in the best light, most likely to coax the country into providing more outbreak details.

WHO officials worried about how to press China for more information without angering authorities or jeopardising Chinese scientists, whom they praised for decoding the genome with astonishing speed.

Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said the best way to “protect China” was for the WHO to do its own independent analysis, because otherwise the spread of the virus between people would be in question and “other countries will take action accordingly”.

From the time the virus was first decoded on January 2 to when the WHO declared a global emergency on January 30, the outbreak grew by a factor of 100 to 200 times, according to retrospective Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention data.

The WHO and officials named in this story declined to answer questions without audio or written transcripts of the recorded meetings, which could not be supplied while protecting sources.

“Our leadership and staff have worked night and day … to support and share information with all member states equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels,” a WHO statement said.

China’s National Health Commission and Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no comment. But in the past few months, China has repeatedly defended its actions, and many other countries – including the United States – have responded to the virus with even longer delays of weeks and even months.

In late December, doctors noticed mysterious clusters of patients with unusual pneumonia. Seeking answers, they sent samples to commercial labs. By December 27, one company, Vision Medicals, had pieced together most of the genome of a new virus with striking similarities to Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. They alerted Wuhan officials who, days later, issued internal notices warning of the unusual pneumonia.

On December 30, Shi Zhengli, a renowned coronavirus expert at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was alerted to the disease, and by January 2, her team had fully decoded it.

But when it came to sharing the genome with the world, things went awry. China’s top medical authority, the National Health Commission, issued a confidential notice forbidding labs from publishing about the virus without authorisation. The order barred Shi’s lab from publishing the sequence or warning of the possible danger.

Commission officials later said the order was to prevent any accidental release of the then-unknown pathogen, and to ensure consistent results by giving it to four state labs to identify at the same time.

By January 5, two other government labs sequenced the virus and another lab in Shanghai led by Zhang Yongzhen had also decoded it. Zhang warned the National Health Commission the virus was “likely infectious”.

The Chinese CDC raised its emergency level to the second highest, but did not have the authority to alert the public.

Suspicious cases starting surfacing across the region. In Thailand, airport officials pulled aside a woman travelling from Wuhan with a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature. Scientists at Chulalongkorn University soon figured out she was infected with a new coronavirus, but did not have a sequence from China to match it.

World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 28. WHO declared a global emergency on January 30. Photo: AFP

WHO officials, meanwhile, grumbled in internal meetings that China was stalling on providing crucial outbreak details even though it was technically meeting its obligations under international law. Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said it was time to “shift gears” and push for more information.

“The danger now is that despite our good intent … there will be a lot of finger-pointing at the WHO if something does happen,” he said.

On January 11, Shanghai’s Zhang finally published the coronavirus sequence ahead of health authorities on, used by researchers to swap tips on pathogens. It was only then that the Chinese CDC, Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences raced to publish their sequences, doing so on January 12.

On January 20, Chinese authorities warned the virus spread between people. The WHO sent a small team to Wuhan from its Asia offices. China representative Galea told colleagues the Chinese were “talking openly and consistently about human-to-human transmission”.

The WHO’s emergency committee of independent experts met twice that week and decided against recommending an emergency. But the agency’s concern prompted an unusual trip to Beijing by WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and top scientists.

At the end of Tedros’ trip, the WHO convened another emergency meeting, finally declaring a global emergency on January 30. Tedros thanked China profusely, declining to mention any of WHO’s earlier frustrations.

“We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing,” he said. “It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries.”