WHO makes a U-turn, says it found out about coronavirus from its Wuhan office and not Chinese officials

WHO says that its office in China picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website on cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ on December 31, 2019


                            WHO makes a U-turn, says it found out about coronavirus from its Wuhan office and not Chinese officials
(Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reignited the debate about China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in its earliest days by saying it was alerted to the crisis by its own office in China and not by the local authorities.

The April 27 archived timeline of the agency says that on December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, and that a novel coronavirus was eventually identified. However, in the recently changed timeline of the WHO's response to Covid-19, the organization says that its country office in China "picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website" on cases of 'viral pneumonia' in Wuhan. "The Country Office notified the International Health Regulations (IHR) focal point in the WHO Western Pacific regional office about the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission media statement of the cases and provided a translation of it," says the new timeline published on June 29.

The agency further writes that its Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources (EIOS) platform also picked up a media report on ProMED (a program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases) about the same cluster of cases of "pneumonia of unknown cause" in Wuhan on December 31. "Several health authorities from around the world contacted WHO seeking additional information," it adds. 

The April 27 timeline says that on January 1, 2020, WHO had set up the incident management support team (IMST) across the three levels of the organization: headquarters, regional headquarters and country-level, putting the organization on an "emergency footing" for dealing with the outbreak. The WHO now says that on January 1, it requested information on the reported cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan from the Chinese authorities. It also says that on the same day, it activated IMST, as part of its emergency response framework, which ensures "coordination of activities and response across the three levels of WHO".

On January 2, the WHO representative in China also wrote to the National Health Commission, offering WHO support and repeating the request for further information on the cluster of cases. "WHO informed Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) partners about the cluster of pneumonia cases in the People’s Republic of China. GOARN partners include major public health agencies, laboratories, sister UN agencies, international organizations, and NGOs," it says.

It was on January 3 that Chinese officials "provided information to WHO" on the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ identified in Wuhan, says the new timeline on the coronavirus response. The changed timeline comes as the WHO reported a record increase in global coronavirus cases on June 4, with the total rising by 212,326 in 24 hours. The previous WHO record for new cases was 189,077 on June 28. 

WHO reported a record increase in global coronavirus cases on June 4, with the total rising by 212,326 in 24 hours (Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump has often questioned the WHO’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic. An interim report by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme has also called for an independent assessment of the agency’s performance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at an appropriate time. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has promised that the review would begin as soon as possible. 

Trump has also repeatedly alleged that Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured the organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities. While the WHO has publicly praised China for its response to the new coronavirus disease during the early days of the outbreak, a report in June said recordings of internal meetings suggest that the WHO struggled to get crucial information from China about the novel coronavirus during the critical early days in January. 

Last month, China also released a white paper stating that its response was swift and it immediately notified the WHO and relevant countries, including the US. It alleged that "certain countries" ignored this information, and now blame China for their "own failure to respond to the epidemic and protect their people's lives".  While China has been accused of covering up during the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, the report said China released "authoritative and detailed information" as early as possible, thus "effectively responding" to public concern and building public consensus. The white paper emphasized that China "wasted no time" in releasing information such as the whole coronavirus genome sequence and the specific primers and probes for detecting the coronavirus to the WHO and other relevant countries and regional organizations, and has kept them informed with regular updates.

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