China would delay the dissemination of information about both the virus genome and early patients, making it difficult to determine the transmission rate of the coronavirus. The praise received by the WHO would have been primarily an invitation to Beijing to release more information, according to Associated Press, while privately i United Nations agency officials have repeatedly complained about China’s delays.
The picture that emerges appears to contradict both the claims of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping – who has always defended China’s work as “timely” and “transparent” – and with the point of view of US President Donald Trump, who has accused the WHO of being “Sino-centric”.
The frustration of WHO officials
The lack of transparency in China is joined by a sort of impotence by the WHO which has no inspection powers and cannot investigate independently within the member countries. The WHO would have put China in a good light so as not to irritate Beijing officials and gain more information on the disease. WHO’s frustration had cleared up in the second week of January, before the surge in cases in Wuhan on January 20 last year.
WHO’s director of emergencies, Michael Ryan, had complained that China was not cooperating as other countries had done in the past and that more pressure was needed on China for greater transparency.
“We are proceeding with minimal information, clearly it is not enough for appropriate planning,” said Maria van Kerkhove, head of the WHO Covid-19 technical group, during an internal meeting quoted by the PA.
Not timely information
The search for the coronavirus genome had already begun in late December, and the first mappings date back to the first days of January, but the release of the information would not have been as timely, due to a law that prevents laboratories from conducting experiments on viruses life-threatening without approval from national health authorities.
Furthermore, a note issued on January 3 by the National Health Commission to the scientific laboratories that were working on the new coronavirus to destroy Covid samples or send them to designated institutes to secure them would have slowed the release of information.
Added to this is an almost absence of new cases of abnormal pneumonia in Wuhan in the official newsletters of the following two weeks, despite the first recorded cases of deaths. The absence of information had made the WHO nervous already in the first days of January. Ryan himself had complained of the absence of laboratory diagnosis, analysis of the geographical distribution of the virus or an epidemic curve.
Before January 20, when the contagion curve in Wuhan surged, despite the situation becoming increasingly serious even for the Chinese authorities, the frustration of WHO officials for China’s lack of transparency had reached very high levels.
“We have formally and informally requested more epidemiological information,” said WHO representative in China, Gauden Galea, “but when we asked for specifics, we got nothing.”
Only after the visit to Beijing by the WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, on January 28, did China accept the sending of a WHO team for an inspection and only on January 30 last, the WHO declared the international health emergency, expressing “respect and gratitude” to China for the “incredible” commitment to limiting the spread of the new coronavirus.