WHO:China Delayed Releasing Virus Info 06/02 06:21
Chinese officials sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the deadly
virus for over a week after multiple government labs had fully decoded it, not
sharing details key to designing tests, drugs and vaccines. Strict controls on
information and competition within the Chinese public health system were
largely to blame, The Associated Press has found from internal documents,
emails and dozens of interviews.
(AP) -- Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised
China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus and thanked
the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus "immediately,."
But in fact, Chinese officials sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome,
of the deadly virus for over a week after multiple government labs had fully
decoded it, not sharing details key to designing tests, drugs and vaccines.
Strict controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health
system were largely to blame, The Associated Press has found from internal
documents, emails and dozens of interviews.
Health officials only released the genome after a Chinese lab published it
ahead of authorities on a virology website on Jan 11. Even then, China stalled
for at least two weeks more on giving WHO the details it needed, according to
recordings of multiple internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency in
January all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been
Although WHO continued to publicly commend China, the recordings obtained by
the AP show they were concerned China was not sharing enough information to
assess the risk posed by the new virus, costing the world valuable time.
"We're currently at the stage where yes, they're giving it to us 15 minutes
before it appears on CCTV," said WHO's top official in China, Dr. Gauden Galea,
referring to the state-owned China Central Television, in one meeting.
The story behind the early response to the pandemic comes at a time when the
U.N. health agency is under siege. U.S. President Trump cut ties with WHO on
Friday, after blasting the agency for allegedly colluding with China to hide
the extent of the epidemic. Chinese President Xi Jinping said China has always
provided information to WHO and the world "in a most timely fashion."
The new information does not support the narrative of either the U.S. or
China, but portrays an agency now stuck in the middle that was urgently trying
to solicit more data. Although international law obliges countries to report
information to WHO that could have an impact on public health, the U.N. agency
has no enforcement powers. Instead, it must rely on the cooperation of member
The AP has found rather than colluding with China, WHO was itself largely
kept in the dark, as China gave it only the minimal information required. But
the agency did attempt to portray China in the best light, most likely to coax
the country into providing more outbreak details.
WHO officials worried about how to press China for more information without
angering authorities or jeopardizing Chinese scientists, whom they praised for
decoding the genome with astonishing speed. Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO's emergencies
chief, said the best way to "protect China" was for WHO to do its own
independent analysis, because otherwise the spread of the virus between people
would be in question and "other countries will take action accordingly."
From the time the virus was first decoded on Jan. 2 to when WHO declared a
global emergency on Jan. 30, the outbreak grew by a factor of 100 to 200 times,
according to retrospective Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention
WHO and officials named in this story declined to answer questions asked by
the AP without audio or written transcripts of the recorded meetings, which the
AP was unable to supply to protect its sources.
"Our leadership and staff have worked night and day....to support and share
information with all Member States equally, and engage in frank and forthright
conversations with governments at all levels," a WHO statement said.
China's National Health Commission and Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no
comment. But in the past few months, China has repeatedly defended its actions,
and many other countries including the U.S. have responded to the virus
with even longer delays of weeks and even months.
In late December, doctors noticed mysterious clusters of patients with
unusual pneumonia. Seeking answers, they sent samples to commercial labs. By
Dec. 27, one company, Vision Medicals, had pieced together most of the genome
of a new virus with striking similarities to SARS. They alerted Wuhan
officials, who, days later, issued internal notices warning of the unusual
On Dec. 30, Shi Zhengli, a renowned coronavirus expert at the Wuhan
Institute of Virology, was alerted to the disease, and by Jan. 2, her team had
fully decoded it.
But when it came to sharing the genome with the world, things went awry.
China's top medical authority, the National Health Commission, issued a
confidential notice forbidding labs from publishing about the virus without
authorization. The order barred Shi's lab from publishing the sequence or
warning of the possible danger.
Commission officials later said the order was to prevent any accidental
release of the then-unknown pathogen, and to ensure consistent results by
giving it to four state labs to identify at the same time.
By Jan. 5, two other government labs sequenced the virus, and another lab in
Shanghai led by Zhang Yongzhen had also decoded it. Zhang warned the National
Health Commission the virus was "likely infectious." The Chinese CDC raised its
emergency level to the second highest, but did not have the authority to alert
Suspicious cases starting surfacing across the region. In Thailand, airport
officials pulled aside a woman traveling from Wuhan with a runny nose, sore
throat and high temperature. Scientists at Chulalongkorn University soon
figured out she was infected with a new coronavirus, but did not have a
sequence from China to match it.
WHO officials, meanwhile, grumbled in internal meetings that China was
stalling on providing crucial outbreak details even though it was technically
meeting its obligations under international law. Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief,
said it was time to "shift gears" and push for more information.
"The danger now is that despite our good intent...there will be a lot of
finger-pointing at WHO if something does happen," he said.
On Jan. 11, Shanghai's Zhang finally published the coronavirus sequence
ahead of health authorities on virological.org, used by researchers to swap
tips on pathogens. It was only then that the Chinese CDC, Wuhan Institute of
Virology and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences raced to publish their
sequences, doing so on Jan. 12.
On Jan. 20, Chinese authorities warned the virus spread between people. WHO
dispatched a small team to Wuhan from its Asia offices. China representative
Galea told colleagues the Chinese were "talking openly and consistently about
WHO's emergency committee of independent experts met twice that week and
decided against recommending an emergency. But the agency's concern prompted an
unusual trip to Beijing by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and
At the end of Tedros' trip, WHO convened another emergency meeting, finally
declaring a global emergency on Jan. 30. Tedros thanked China profusely,
declining to mention any of WHO's earlier frustrations.
"We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for
what it's doing," he said. "It has already done incredible things to limit the
transmission of the virus to other countries."