Leaked WHO Recordings Show China Withheld Vital Coronavirus Data
Investigation claims China stalled on passing vital information to UN health body
The Communist Party of China (CPC) withheld vital information on the coronavirus from investigators in the early days of the outbreak, leaked internal recordings from the World Health Organization (WHO) have revealed.
The recordings suggest the Chinese government was holding back on sharing early critical data on COVID-19.
Beijing stalled for weeks before providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases during a crucial time when the outbreak could have been slowed, an investigation claims.
The recordings were taken during internal WHO meetings from the second week of January and obtained by the Associated Press.
It reveals that Maria Van Kerkhove, a US epidemiologist and WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, raised concerns they were "going off very minimal information" which was "not enough for you do to proper planning."
In a second recording, Dr. Gauden Galea, the top WHO official in China, complains that the organization was being provided with information just "15 minutes before it appears on CCTV [China's Communist Party-controlled broadcaster]."
The recordings were taken at a crucial time in early January when there were fewer than 100 recorded cases of COVID-19, according to reports.
By the end of the month, the number of cases had exploded to nearly 10,000, when the WHO declared a global health emergency.
Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus.
It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus "immediately," and said its work and commitment to transparency were "very impressive, and beyond words."
But behind the scenes, it was a different story, one of the significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, The Associated Press has found.
Despite the plaudits, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information.
Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.
Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on January 11.
Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the U.N. health agency through January - all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.
WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government, the recordings obtained by the AP suggest.
Privately, they complained in meetings the week of January 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.
"We're going on very minimal information," said Kerkhove, in one internal meeting.
"It's clearly not enough for you to do proper planning."
The story behind the early response to the virus comes at a time when the U.N. health agency is under siege and has agreed to an independent probe of how the pandemic was handled globally.
After WHO's repeated praising of the Chinese response early on, U.S. President Donald Trump has blasted WHO in recent weeks for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the coronavirus crisis.
He cut ties with the organization on Friday, slashing the approximately $450 million the U.S. gives every year as WHO's biggest single donor.
In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to fight the coronavirus, claiming China has always provided information to WHO and the world "in a most timely fashion."