China withheld data on coronavirus from WHO, recordings reveal

Lily Kuo in Beijing
Photograph: Naohiko Hatta/AP

The World Health Organization struggled to get needed information from China during critical early days of the coronavirus pandemic, according to recordings of internal meetings that contradict the organisation’s public praise of Beijing’s response to the outbreak.

The recordings, obtained by the Associated Press (AP), show officials complaining in meetings during the week of 6 January that Beijing was not sharing data needed to evaluate the risk of the virus to the rest of the world. It was not until 20 January that China confirmed coronavirus was contagious and 30 January that the WHO declared a global emergency.

“We’re going on very minimal information,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the WHO technical lead for Covid-19, according to the AP. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”

The WHO’s top official in China, Gauden Galea, said in one of the recordings: “We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV [Chinese state TV].”

The report comes amid growing international scrutiny of China’s handling of the outbreak and moves to establish an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, which has infected more than 6 million and killed more than 375,000 people around the world.

The WHO has been criticised for consistently lauding China, even as questions emerged over the suppression of early warnings and information. The WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has praised China for “setting a new standard for outbreak response” in its swift and aggressive measures.

The WHO’s office in China did not respond to a request for comment on the recordings. It said in a statement, reported by the AP: “Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organisation’s rules and regulations to support and share information with all member states equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels.”

In early January, Michael Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, said he feared a repeat of the Sars epidemic in 2002, which Chinese officials initially covered up.

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

Ryan criticised China for not cooperating and advised for applying more pressure on Beijing. “This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places,” he said, apparently referring to the Ebola outbreak. “We need to see the data. It’s absolutely important at this point.”

Warnings and reports of a mysterious Sars-like virus began to filter out of Wuhan city in December but were suppressed by authorities. On 9 January, Chinese state media announced the illness was the result of a new coronavirus but said it was not contagious.

Almost two weeks later, officials admitted the virus was transmittable, as hospitals in the city were already flooded with patients and cases were appearing across the region. Authorities locked down Wuhan on 23 January, but at least 5 million residents had left, travelling across the country as well as overseas before the lunar new year holiday.

 

What is the World Health Organization’s remit?

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded as the UN global health body in 1948 in the aftermath of the second world war with a mandate to promote global health, protect against infectious disease and to serve the vulnerable. 

Its current programme envisages expanding universal healthcare to a billion more people, protecting another billion from health emergencies and providing a further billion people with better health and wellbeing.

What does that involve?

The WHO acts as a clearing house for investigation, data and technical recommendations on emerging disease threats such as the coronavirus and Ebola. It also supports eradication of existing diseases such as malaria and polio and promotes global public health.

While its role on emerging diseases is most familiar in the developed world, its practical involvement is far more marked in the global south, where it has been working to expand basic healthcare, support vaccination and sustain weak and often stressed health systems through its emergencies programmes. 

 

Why is the WHO under fire from Trump? 

Trump has presented the freezing of US funding to the WHO as a direct response to what he claims was its slow reaction in raising the alarm over the global threat from the coronavirus and being too “China-centric” in its response. The allegation that the WHO was slow to warn of the risk of human-to-human transmission, and that it failed to cross-examine Chinese transparency early on, is largely not borne out by the evidence. And the organisation’s funding was already in his sights on 7 February, when his administration was suggesting cutting the US contribution by half.

The WHO, to whom the US theoretically contributes roughly 10-15% of its budget as its largest contributor, has been appealing for an extra $1bn to help fight the coronavirus. While the suspension of funding by the US for 60-90 days is relatively small – not least because the US is so far in arrears in its annual payments – the potential for a general US withdrawal from global health funding under the cover of this announcement would be very serious and felt most profoundly in places that need the most support.

Peter Beaumont and Sarah Boseley