China held back virus insights from WHO

City talk | ASSOCIATED PRESS 3 Jun 2020

Throughout January, the World Health Organization 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 Chinese officials had, in fact, sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for over a week after many 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, documents, e-mails and many interviews show.

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 weeks more on giving the WHO the details it needed, according to recordings of multiple internal meetings held by the United Nations' 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 Beijing 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 the WHO's top official in China, Gauden Galea, in one meeting.

The story behind the early response to the pandemic comes at a time when the health agency is under siege.

President Donald Trump cut US ties with the WHO on Friday after blasting the agency for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the epidemic.

President Xi Jinping said information was always provided to the WHO and the world "in a most timely fashion."

The new information does not support the narrative of either the United States 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 agency has no enforcement powers. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member states.

Rather than colluding with China, the WHO was itself largely kept in the dark as Beijing gave it only the minimal information required. But the agency did attempt to portray China in the best light - most likely to coax the country into providing more outbreak details.

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

Michael Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, said the best way to protect China was for the agency 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 Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.

And the Who stated its personnel "worked night and day to support and share information with all member states equally."

Continues tomorrow

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