COVID-19: China’s dangerous obsession with secrecy a serious threat to global public health

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Contrary to what was earlier reported, China confirmed to the WHO of the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ on January 3 only after the global body twice reached out to the Chinese authorities on January 1-2. Powerful countries cannot be allowed to endanger the lives of global public by shirking responsibility.

In a bid to cover-up his own failures to contain the spread of the virus and limit the number of deaths in the country, U.S. President Donald Trump has been accusing China of “secrecy, deception and cover-up” of the novel coronavirus outbreak and the World Health Organization of being “China-centric”.

Mr. Trump could not have known it, but there is now evidence that the WHO had not been fully transparent during the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan, and China had indeed been opaque in more ways than already known.

Not alerted by China

If the WHO by being deliberately ambiguous gave an impression that on December 31 last year China had alerted the global body of the outbreak, the June 29 revised timeline of WHO clarifies the facts to a great degree. WHO’s country office in China had apparently been alerted by a media statement made by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission about cases of viral pneumonia. It picked the same news from another independent source too.

China confirmed to the WHO of the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ on January 3 only after the global body twice reached out to the Chinese authorities on January 1-2. Following the confirmation, the WHO on January 4 tweeted to say “China has reported to WHO a cluster of pneumonia cases, with no deaths, in Wuhan, Hubei Province…”

Also, if the earlier timeline had mentioned that on December 31 a “novel coronavirus was eventually identified” as the cause of pneumonia cases, the revised information posted on the WHO website mentions that the cause of illness was not known till January 2, and China did not confirm novel coronavirus as the cause even on January 3 when it confirmed a cluster of pneumonia cases.

Why WHO was praising China

At least on three occasions (here and here), including on January 30 when the Public health emergency of international concern was declared, WHO had publicly praised China for its commitment to transparency. While it also said China was “setting a new standard for outbreak response” and called the quick sharing of whole genome sequence data of the virus as “very impressive”, independent investigation revealed that the situation was very different.

China was simply not forthcoming with details. It did not share sequence data at least for a few days and not before the Shanghai-based lab — Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center & School of Public Health — at Fudan University posted it on GenBank. If the world knew of human-to-human transmission in China only on January 20, the global body too was in the dark for much of the time. And then China continued to maintain that there was only limited human-to-human transmission thus hiding the highly transmissible nature of the virus. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that the outbreak started at least by early November last year.

Apparently, the WHO had to keep praising China in public so that it shared vital information. Surely, powerful countries cannot be allowed to endanger lives across the world by shirking responsibility.

No lessons learnt

China has evidently refused to learn lessons from the disastrous handling of the 2002 SARS outbreak. The current pandemic continues to ravage lives and infect millions (over 11 million already), killing nearly 5,35,000 people, and destroying livelihoods and the world economy. At least some of the impact could have been lessened by more proactive action on the part of China, and by less deferential attitude on the part of the WHO.

Published in The Hindu on July 7, 2020