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New report finds China delayed sharing virus information with WHO as outbreak began

Even as the Chinese government stalled on sharing valuable information with WHO, the UN Organization's leaders offered public praise for the Chinese response

Published: June 2, 2020 8:14am

Updated: June 2, 2020 8:33am

China reportedly delayed the release of the virus’s genetic map for more than a week after several Chinese government labs had decoded the pertinent information. The government labs, in fact, only released the genome after another lab unexpectedly published their findings on January 11.

China then delayed providing the World Health Organization with patient data for an additional two weeks, according to a new Associated Press report.

WHO officials decided to praise China’s behavior publicly to persuade the Chinese government to hand over more relevant information in a timely manner, the report also states.

Meetings during the week of January 6 showcase WHO leaders frustrated that they did not have enough information to adequately assess the threat of the coming pandemic.

“We’re going on very minimal information. It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning,” said one American epidemiologist, who is now the WHO’s technical lead for the coronavirus response.

These findings come as the WHO agreed to an independent probe of their pandemic response and as President Trump announced on Friday that the U.S. will cut ties with the WHO.

Trump has loudly criticized the United Nations health agency for its repeated early praise of the Chinese response to the pandemic. Prior to Trump’s announcement, the U.S. has contributed $450 million annually to the standing U.N. body.

During the second week of January, Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, expressed his desire to increase the pressure on China to provide adequate information about the novel virus. He recalled that China behaved in a similar fashion during the 2002 outbreak of SARS that began in China.

“This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what’s going on. WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China,” Ryan said.

According to data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from January 2, the day the full virus genome was decoded, to January 30, the day the WHO declared a global emergency, the outbreak spread by a factor of 100-200.

The medical community is split on its response to the behavior of the WHO during the initial phases of the pandemic. Though there is agreement that more lives could have been saved if China and the WHO had acted faster, there is also an acknowledgement if the WHO had exerted unwelcome pressure on China, they faced the real risk of getting stonewalled, or perhaps even kicked out of the country.

Some members of the global scientific community are now raising concerns about the relationship between WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Beijing.

“It’s definitely damaged WHO’s credibility. Did he go too far? I think the evidence on that is clear … it has led to so many questions about the relationship between China and WHO,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health professor at the University of Sydney, about Ghebreyesus’s continued defense of China’s behavior.

Throughout January, the WHO praised China’s response to the outbreak of a new virus, calling their work and commitment to transparency “very impressive, and beyond words.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has now promised $2 billion in funding over the next two years to help fight the coronavirus on a global level.

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