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A damning new report indicates a shocking lack of transparency on the part of Beijing which left public health officials fuming, with US epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove reportedly complaining about being forced to make decisions based on “very minimal information”. Another official said the WHO was only supplied with crucial information minutes before it being released to Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television. The early stages of the outbreak still remain unclear, with no general agreement on where, when or even how COVID-19 emerged.
Officially, the first case of the illness was identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan on December 31, and the WHO issued a press release warning about a “mystery lung disease” on January 5.
However, one subsequent study has claimed the first case can be dated back to at least November 17, and possibly earlier, with Dr Ai Fen later telling Chinese magazine People she had been reprimanded after warning superiors about about a “Sars-like” virus-related illness in mid-December.
She said: “If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand.”
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Throughout January, the WHO heaped praise on China for its speedy response, thanking the Chinese government for “immediately” sharing the coronavirus’s genetic map, and describing its efforts as “very impressive”.
Assessing Beijing’s efforts at the Munich Security Conference the following month, Director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said: “China has bought the world time.”
Behind the scenes it was a different story, according to an investigation by the AP news agency, which suggested China in fact kept the genetic map for more than a week after it had been decoded by no fewer than three separate labs.
Recordings of internal WHO meetings indicated the information was only shared after a separate lab published the information on a virologist website on January 11.
At one point during a meeting in the week beginning January 6, Dr Van Kerkhove, who is the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, complained: “We’re going on very minimal information.
“It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
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In another meeting, Dr Gauden Galea, WHO’s top official in China, said: “We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV.”
Moving into the second week of January, Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, told colleagues he was fearful of a repeat of the circumstances surround the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which started in China in 2002 and which killed almost 800 people worldwide.
He added: “This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on.
“WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China.
“We need to see the data. It’s absolutely important at this point.”
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on January 8, Dr Ryan added: “The fact is, we’re two to three weeks into an event, we don’t have a laboratory diagnosis, we don’t have an age, sex or geographic distribution, we don’t have an epi curve.”
Even at this stage, the WHO was unclear on the question of whether the disease was being transmitted from person to person.
On January 14 Dr Van Kerkhove said it was “certainly possible there is limited human-to-human transmission”.
However, hours later the WHO tweeted: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.
The WHO has been the subject of significant criticism for its handling of the pandemic, not least from US President Donald Trump, who at the weekend announced his country was severing all ties, accusing it of being unduly influenced by China and questioning the decision not to declare a public health emergency until January 30.
The United States is the WHO’s biggest donor, supplying more than $115million in assessed contributions this year as of March 31, 2020, more than 15 percent of its overall budget.
As of today, there are 6,383,805 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and 6,383,805 deaths.
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