Coronavirus: What explains WHO’s hesitancy to regularly update its website?

Coronavirus 2

It is surprising that the WHO does not considering sharing on its website, which was finally updated on January 21 after four days, the information it tweets considering that the website will be the first place that any person would check for latest information.

At a time when the novel coronavirus outbreak is becoming alarming in China’s Wuhan City in Hubei Province, spreading to other cities in China and three other countries, the World Health Organization has taken to microblogging site Twitter to keep the public updated. With Twitter not available in China, WHO has been quite regularly posting updates on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site.

Unfortunately, WHO’s updates have been in dribs and drabs. The WHO website, including the coronavirus disease outbreak news page, does not reflect any of the latest developments. Even on Twitter where WHO is apparently active, there has been an unexplained hesitancy to retweet some important coronavirus information tweeted by the WHO Western Pacific Region handle.

Website silent on rise in cases and spread

When the WHO website was updated on January 17, the number of confirmed cases reported stood at 41 and deaths at two. The silence on the WHO website for four days becomes especially pronounced given some major developments.

One, the number of confirmed cases has increased. As of January 21 morning, the WHO Western Pacific Region handle tweeted that the number of confirmed cases has risen to 222 and the total number of deaths, all in Wuhan, now stands at four. In the evening of the same day, the WHO website updated the number of deaths to six and total number of cases to 282. On January 22, China’s National Health Commission reported 440 confirmed cases. Officials have also confirmed 17 deaths in China. Strangely, WHO has neither tweeted nor posted on its website an update on new cases or deaths.

Two, in China, the virus has spread from Wuhan to 13 provinces in China — there are 26 confirmed cases in Guangdong province, 10 in Beijing and nine from Shanghai municipality. Apart from the two imported cases — one in Thailand and one in Japan, mentioned in the January 17 update — one imported case has been reported from Thailand and South Korea. Since the last website update on January 21, one such case each has been reported from the U.S., and Taiwan.

Human-to-human transmission confirmed

Three, the WHO Western Pacific Region tweeted that the number of confirmed cases in China include 15 healthcare workers. The WHO had earlier tweeted that there was limited human-to-human transmission of the virus as those infected had not visited the Huanan seafood wholesale market, which is the source of the virus. At the time, none of the healthcare workers had been found infected. The confirmation that healthcare workers are now also affected strengthens the evidence that the virus has already acquired the ability to spread among humans. Though more information and analysis is needed to understand the full extent of spread, all these developments are significant.

Emergency Committee meeting

It is taking into consideration all these factors that the WHO tweeted saying that it will be convening an Emergency Committee meeting on January 22 to “ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it”.

Twitter is an excellent medium to quickly disseminate information, particularly as WHO is followed by 5.1 million people across the world, and many of its tweets get retweeted at least a couple of thousand times. Therefore, it is crucial for the WHO to retweet the important updates of the WHO Western Pacific Region handle (which has only 30,300 followers).

In a fast developing scenario such as this, it is also important for the WHO to keep its coronavirus ‘Disease Outbreak News’ page on its website regularly updated. It is surprising that the WHO does not considering sharing on its website the information it tweets considering that the website will be the first place that any person would check for latest information. Also, unlike Twitter where it will be difficult to find all the tweets relating to coronavirus in one place, the website will be a one-stop place to access complete information.

CDC website: treasure trove of information

There is a lesson that the WHO can learn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The U.S. CDC website has a clickable banner on novel coronavirus right at the top in its home page. Clicking it with lead to latest information relevant to the U.S. readers. But again a 2019 coronavirus, Wuhan, China banner can be found right at the top of the page which when clicked will lead to the latest information on the virus in the summary with links to information on various aspects.

On many occasions, the WHO has been accused of not acting on time, especially when new and dangerous viruses make thousands sick and kill many. While it has so far shown alacrity in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, it should not be found wanting in sharing information and updates on multiple platforms, particularly its website.

Millions of Chinese are set to travel during the Lunar New Year holiday this week. In these circumstances, it is the WHO’s responsibility to ensure that everyone is fully informed.

Update – January 23

Late evening of January 22, WHO updated its website with cases and deaths as confirmed the previous day. Accordingly, the number of confirmed cases is reported as 314, with 309 cases from China alone. Cases outside Chia are reported from Thailand (two cases), and one each from Japan and South Korea. There have been six deaths, and sixteen health-care workers have been infected.

Published in The Hindu on January 23, 2020