Virus genome wrapped in secrecy

City talk | ASSOCIATED PRESS 4 Jun 2020

Continues from yesterday

China's National Health Commission and the ministry of foreign affairs did not comment on the World Health Organization being kept out of the coronavirus information loop as the menace took shape.

But Beijing has repeatedly defended its actions while many other countries - including the United States - responded to the virus with delays of weeks and even months.

It was in late December that doctors noticed mysterious clusters of patients in Wuhan 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. They alerted Wuhan officials, who days later issued internal notices warning of the 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 authorization. The order barred Shi's lab from publishing the sequence or warning of possible danger.

Commission officials said later 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 commission the virus was "likely infectious."

The Chinese CDC raised its emergency level to the second- highest but lacked authority to alert the public.

Suspicious cases started surfacing across the region.

In Thailand, airport officials pulled aside a woman traveling 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.

Officials of the WHO, meanwhile, grumbled at internal meetings that China was stalling on providing crucial details even though it was technically meeting its obligations under international law.

Michael Ryan, the 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 WHO if something does happen,'' he said.

On January 11, Shanghai's Zhang finally published the coronavirus sequence ahead of health authorities on virological.org, used by researchers to swap tips on pathogens.

It was only then the Chinese CDC, the 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 dispatched a small team to Wuhan from its Asia offices. China representative Gauden Galea said 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 its concern prompted a trip to Beijing by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and scientists.

At the end of Tedros' trip, the WHO held another emergency meeting, finally declaring a global emergency on January 30.

Tedros thanked China profusely, declining to mention 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."

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