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China rejects report that it delayed COVID-19 information sharing with WHO

China rejects report that it delayed COVID-19 information sharing with WHO
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BEIJING — China said on Wednesday a news report that said it delayed sharing COVID-19 information with the World Health Organization (WHO) is totally untrue.

Beijing was publicly praised by the WHO for it’s “very impressive” commitment to transparency in the initial phases of the outbreak, but the reality was that leading officials were deeply frustrated, an investigation has found.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP, File

At another meeting, Dr Gauden Galea, WHO’s top official in China, complains about getting information just before it was released by state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV).

“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” he said.

At that stage, in early January, there were fewer than 100 cases, but the number was nearing 10,000 when the WHO declared a global health emergency at the end of the month. The figure now stands at more than six million.

The investigation found that China “resisted” sharing the genome sequence of the virus for more than a week due to tight controls on information and fierce internal competition within China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC). It was only after a private lab in Shanghai published the sequence on the website virological.org that the CDC scrambled to do the same.

Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing the WHO with detailed data on patients and cases – at a time when the outbreak might have been dramatically slowed.

It left the organisation unable to assess whether there was human-to-human transmission, or ascertain the risk the virus posed to the rest of the world.

The chasm between the WHO’s public praise and private frustration is because it has limited powers to coax information out of member states and often has to resort to diplomacy.

Dr Clare Wenham, professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, said: “If it pushed China too far, there was a risk that the government would just say ‘no’, close lines of communication and stop sharing anything at all.”

If it pushed China too far, there was a risk that the government would just say no

Under international law, countries are required to share data about potential disease outbreaks with the WHO, which is then obliged to alert other member states. But the system relies on trust. The organisation has become both a scapegoat for governments that have been slow to tackle the virus and a “proxy battlefield” for a power struggle between the US and China.

Donald Trump, the US president, said on Friday that he will withdraw funding to the WHO after accusing the agency of being “China-centric”.

President Xi Jinping has pledged pounds 1.6 billion over the next two years to fight the virus and insisted that China has always shared information “in a most timely fashion”. Yesterday, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain said his country would welcome an investigation into the origins of the pandemic as its “record is clean”.

With files from Reuters and The Telegraph

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