The World of International Organizations

Updated WHO timeline flags controversy

U.S. sailor Joyce Sim treats a patient aboard a hospital ship supporting the nation's COVID-19 response effort (AN/Ryan Breeden)

GENEVA (Arête News) — Who knew that a new coronavirus had been detected and when did they know it? As the World Health Organization gears up for an investigation into its handling of the pandemic, its own revised timeline on the first reports of COVID-19 might raise more questions than it answers.

Days after the world surged past 10 million new coronavirus cases and 500,000 deaths in late June, WHO quietly updated its pandemic timeline to reflect that China did not directly notify global authorities of the first “viral pneumonia” cases in Wuhan.

Instead, the U.N. health agency said in an updated chronology as of the end of June that its field office in China had “picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website” about the new outbreak.

Agency officials spotted the cases on Dec. 31 in an open-source platform for information on outbreaks. On Jan. 1, WHO also said in its revised timeline, its officials formally “requested information on the reported cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan from the Chinese authorities.”

That trigged a legal deadline requiring that China, as one of WHO’s 194 member nations, respond within 24 to 48 hours. The next day, WHO’s China representative “wrote to the National Health Commission, offering WHO support and repeating the request for further information on the cluster of cases.”

Chinese researchers decoded the genome of the virus and, on the next day, Jan. 3, Chinese officials provided WHO with information “on the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ identified in Wuhan,” according to the U.N. health agency.

One day later, WHO tweeted that China had reported to WHO “a cluster of pneumonia cases” — 44 people with the coronavirus — and no deaths in Wuhan.

‘Fact number one’

WHO’s first version of the timeline and Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s comments to reporters in April indicated the Wuhan commission proactively reported the new coronavirus cases.

That information came only after U.S. President Donald Trump accused WHO of taking too long to raise the alarm and of being too soft on China for attempting to deflect criticism of its handling of the outbreak.

“The first report came from Wuhan, from China itself,” Tedros, a politician and public health expert who headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, told an April 20 virtual news conference. “So the report first came from China — that’s fact number one — from Wuhan itself.”

In May, WHO’s top governing body, under fire from the Trump administration, unanimously approved a resolution calling for an independent review of its response to the pandemic. The 194-nation World Health Assembly ordered Tedros to carry out an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO-led international response to the COVID-19 outbreak “at the earliest appropriate moment.”

The Associated Press reported WHO publicly praised China for the speed of its coronavirus response but privately vented frustration at the nation’s “significant delays” in releasing critical information, including the genome of the virus that Chinese researchers mapped but did not share with WHO until a week later.

Trump’s Republican allies in the U.S. Congress are keeping up the pressure on the U.N. health agency.

“I have repeatedly requested information from the WHO about what they knew and when they knew it, and I would welcome any clarity from them on this. But so far, they have refused to answer any of those requests,” U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, leader of the Republicans’ China task force, said last week.

“The question now,” he added, “is whether the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will continue their false propaganda campaign that continues to claim they warned the world or whether they will come clean and begin to work with the world health community to get to the bottom of this deadly pandemic.”

McCaul released an interim staff report in mid-June on the origins of COVID-19 that concluded it was “highly likely the ongoing pandemic could have been prevented” if the Chinese government had acted faster and WHO officials had been less deferential towards Beijing. It also called on Tedros to resign as WHO chief.

China’s government immediately denounced the interim report on the grounds that it “spreads disinformation in an attempt to smear China and deflect the U.S. government’s responsibility for [its] incompetent response,” a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, told a regular press conference.

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