CHINA could have acted more quickly in dealing with Covid-19, the WHO’s pandemic response probe declared on Monday. The WHO-backed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ in January last year.
The panel, set up last July after countries including Australia angered China by calling for an investigation, said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’ by both China and the WHO.
The criticism is at odds with the WHO’s public statements at the time, when it praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ with which it responded to the outbreak.
The panel also faulted the WHO itself, which has faced a chorus of criticism led by Donald Trump for being too close to Beijing – although evidence has since emerged that China withheld key information from the UN agency.
The criticism of both authorities comes as a team of WHO experts carries out a separate, politically sensitive mission in China to investigate the origins of the disease.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that ‘no one should be in any doubt that this is a scientific exercise’ to understand how the virus emerged.
The virus first came to light in Wuhan in December 2019 before spiralling catastrophically around the globe, killing at least two million people and bringing the global economy to an unprecedented standstill.
The expert panel was convened last July amid growing pressure on the WHO to hold an investigation, despite Beijing’s efforts to postpone a probe until the pandemic was over.
The panel said last month that it was working on an ‘authoritative chronology’ of how the outbreak began, amid criticism of the WHO for being too credulous towards China in the early days.
In its latest report, the panel upbraided the WHO for failing to call an emergency committee or declare a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ until the end of January.
‘It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, nor is it clear why it was unable to agree on the declaration… when it was first convened,’ the report said.
Trump claimed last May that ‘China has total control’ of the WHO as he announced that the US was ‘terminating’ its relationship with the organisation.
Joe Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, promised during the election campaign that he would restore US ties with the WHO.
Tedros met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last January, when the WHO praised Beijing for its ‘seriousness’ and ‘transparency’ in the early days of the outbreak.
The US accused the WHO of ‘parroting’ the Chinese government by claiming early on that there was little evidence of human-to-human transmission.
‘Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the World Health Organization and pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities,’ the White House claimed last year.
Even as the pandemic started to spiral out of control in February, the WHO praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ at which it isolated the virus.
But in private, WHO officials were bemoaning the ‘minimal information’ they were getting from China, according to leaked documents.
‘We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,’ a state-owned Chinese broadcaster, one WHO official said.
Anger at China grew after a young doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded for trying to raise the alarm about the disease – and subsequently died of it.
A team of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan last week and were greeted by Chinese health officials wearing hazmat suits at the city’s airport
The virus was first confirmed to have spread outside China in January, when a 61-year-old woman was found to be infected with it in Thailand.
After scattered outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Japan among others, the virus barrelled into Europe and North America with full force in March and April.
But Italy, France, and Brazil have all found traces of the virus from before the WHO’s China office was officially alerted about the outbreak on December 31, 2019.
The WHO’s team on the ground in China finally arrived in Wuhan last week after months of negotiations to investigate the origins of the disease.
Tedros said today that ‘the objective is to understand how and when this new coronavirus emerged’.
The team was expected to investigate the animal market linked to an early cluster of cases, but it is no longer thought that this was necessarily where the virus jumped from animals to humans.
It is widely suspected that the virus originated in bats, but scientists say that it may have passed to humans via another species, possibly pangolins.
The Trump administration has touted alternative theories, rejected by China, that the virus could have leaked out from a virology lab in Wuhan.
Last Friday, the US state department claimed that some researchers at the institute had shown possible Covid-19 symptoms weeks before the outbreak came to light.
China, for its part, has promoted the idea that the virus might not have originated within its borders at all but arrived on contaminated seafood from elsewhere.