WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters.
New Delhi: In a bid to find the origins of the novel coronavirus, the WHO “ceded” control to China, allowing the country’s government to “whitewash” its failure to quickly isolate and contain the virus, an investigation by the New York Times has found.
The newspaper accessed internal documents and conducted interviews with more than 50 public-health officials, scientists and diplomats that show how the “disempowered” WHO was eager to “win access and coordination” from China but achieved neither. The documents also show that China was able to extract concessions from WHO which allowed the government to delay important research and avoided a “potentially embarrassing” review of its early response.
The virus’s origin still remains a mystery and the trail may have now gone cold. While China has been secretive about past virus outbreaks – such as the SARS epidemic in 2002, the country later allowed international teams to investigate for the animal source of viruses. This time, the investigation has been “shrouded in secrecy”, according to the New York Times.
Efforts to find the source initially centred around the Huanan wet food market in Wuhan, where COVID-19 cases were first identified. Top Chinese scientists thought initially that the virus may have been transmitted to humans from the illegal sale of wildlife animals at the market.
However, evidence now suggests that the virus jumped naturally from an animal to humans. Indeed, one of the first epidemiological studies on the virus, published by the Chinese CDC director George Gao showed that four of the first five coronavirus patients had no clear links to the market. They were infected elsewhere.
Another top Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, who studies bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, said in July that the Huanan seafood market “may just be a crowded location where a cluster of early novel coronavirus patients were found” and not necessarily the site of human transmission from a human host.
In late January, when more cases were being reported but were still largely restricted to China, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met President Xi to “carve out an agreement”. The meet came one week after a WHO team visited Wuhan, but did not go to the seafood market or the largest hospital for infections diseases. Ghebreyesus tried to lobby Xi to allow a large team of international experts to investigate the source of the virus, but Xi “did not welcome the suggestion that China needed help”, according to NYT.
However, he agreed to let a WHO mission evaluate the situation “objectively, fairly, calmly and rationally”.
The agreement came a week after Ghebreyesus decided against declaring an international emergency in view of the outbreak, after convening a committee to advise him. According to the Times, the committee’s decision came “intense lobbying, notably by China”. The country’s ambassador in Geneva made it clear that if the WHO declares an emergency, his country would view it as a vote of no confidence, while data presented to the committee by China also portrayed a situation under relative control.
Ghebreyesus publicly praised both Xi and China’s pneumonia surveillance system, saying “It was that system that caught this event.”
But this was not the case, NYT said, adding that China’s surveillance system “had failed to spot the outbreak, a failure that experts now say allowed its spread to accelerate”.
Ghebreyesus continued to praise China in late January, adding that he would do so “again and again” because the country’s actions actually helped in reducing the spread of coronavirus to other countries.
Even when Ghebreyesus declared an emergency on January 30, the Chinese delegate did not approve. The committee of experts also advised that the upcoming WHO mission to China should “review and support efforts to investigate the animal source.”
Even before the full team gathered in Beijing on February 16, WHO “ceded ground”, according to NYT, by agreeing not to examine China’s early response or begin investigating the animal source. In fact, it could not even secure a visit to Wuhan.
It was only later, when the team members agreed that the mission would not be credible unless they visited Wuhan, that six members — three Chinese and three international experts — took a special train to the city, which was in lockdown. They stayed for about a day and visited two hospitals but did not go to the seafood market.
The mission produced “valuable information” on the disease and how its transmission but also credited Xi for personally directing and deploying the prevention and control work.
“It was an absolute whitewash,” Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University told the Times. “But the answer was, that was the best they could negotiate with Xi Jinping.”
Two American scientists who were part of the WHO’s mission to China, described by videoconference “the seemingly unimaginable lockdown that China had imposed” but did not have answers about the origins of the virus.
“You’d have to look at the terms of reference,” one of the scientists replied, according to NYT, which spelt out the mission’s rules. US officials had not seen it, but WHO’s public statements suggested that the animal-source investigation was well underway.
The trail went cold for a while, but in May, when the pandemic was well underway and cases began surging across the globe, 140 member-countries passed a resolution that included a clause directing WHO to search for the animal source.
In July, two experts went to China to definite the terms of the investigation. While they were allowed to interview experts by phone, they did not go to Wuhan. To quote from the NYT report:
“Chinese officials then said that the organisation should start investigating in Europe, pointing to reports that the virus had been discovered in sewage systems there last year.
In a letter to Chinese officials described to The Times, the health organisation expressed frustration at China’s delays and insisted that the investigation begin in Wuhan, if only because the first infections were found there.”
But the organisation did not air frustrations publicly, where its utterances only described progress. The WHO has also turned down requests by multiple governments to disclose the investigation terms it had negotiated with China, according to NYT.
No date yet for outside investigation
An executive summary obtained by the Times shows that study will unfold in two phases. The first phase, which will be led by Chinese scientists, will look for the first patients by reviewing hospital records and interviewing people who were treated for COVID-19 in December 2019. The team will also investigate what wildlife was sold at the Wuhan market and follow the supply chain. Outside experts will review the work of the Chinese scientists remotely.
In the second phase, international experts will work with Chinese colleagues to find the virus among animal hosts and a possible intermediate host. No date has been set for a visit.
The NYT report also says that the repeated praise that the organisation and its chief Ghebreyesus heaped on Chinese premier Xi Jinping and his government has also allowed leaders like Donald Trump to push “unfounded conspiracy theories” and “deflect blame for their own mistakes”.
After accusing the WHO of being too “China-centric”, Trump pulled the US out of the organisation.
A special report published by Reuters in May said that Ghebreyesus knew there was a risk of upsetting China’s political rivals with his public show of support, but saw a greater risk – in global health terms – of “losing Beijing’s cooperation as the new coronavirus spread beyond its borders”.