China delayed releasing important coronavirus information during the early days of the outbreak, according to leaked WHO documents and recordings of WHO meetings obtained by the Associated Press (AP).
The delay led to frustration for officials in the World Health Organisation (WHO), even as they publicly praised China for its transparency.
The country waited more than one week before publishing the genome of the novel coronavirus on 11 January, despite the fact three different government labs had fully sequenced the genetic code.
“Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents,” AP reported.
And for two weeks afterwards, China also delayed providing the WHO with more detailed data on patients and cases, according to the recordings, making it difficult for officials to judge whether the virus could spread between people, and what risk it might mean for the rest of the world.
One WHO official reportedly complained: “We’re going on very minimal information. It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
AP said: “WHO staffers debated how to press China for gene sequences and detailed patient data without angering authorities, worried about losing access and getting Chinese scientists into trouble.”
The Chinese government did not comment on AP’s report, but has repeatedly said it has acted transparently.
“Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been continuously sharing information on the epidemic with the WHO, and the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” said Liu Mingzhu, an official with the National Health Commission’s International Department, at a news briefing on 15 May.
In a statement, the WHO said: “Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organisation’s rules and regulations to support and share information with all member states equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels.”
International law requires countries to report information that may affect public health but the WHO does not have enforcement powers.
Officials compared China’s lack of cooperation with other countries.
“This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places,” Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, told colleagues in the second week of January, according to the report.
“We need to see the data. It’s absolutely important at this point.”
The Wuhan Institute of Virology sequenced the genome of the virus by 2 January – a short time after the first efforts to decode the genetic map of the virus began in late December, and other labs were also racing to sequence the genome.
On 3 January, the Chinese National Health Commission issued a secret notice ordering labs studying the virus to destroy their samples or send them to approved institutes.
The notice also banned labs from publishing information about the virus without the approval of the government.
By the end of 5 January, three other Chinese labs had sequenced it, including the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (CDC).
According to AP, the Shanghai Public Clinical Health Center notified the National Health Commission that, according to the sequence: “It should be contagious through respiratory passages. We recommend taking preventative measures in public areas.”
The genetic sequence was finally published on 11 January by the Shanghai lab, a move which angered officials at the Chinese CDC. The Shanghai lab was temporarily closed by authorities.
It was not until 20 January that Chinese authorities confirmed sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus and Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the “timely publication of epidemic information and deepening of international cooperation”.
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