Coronavirus: US Ambassador to NZ Scott Brown unleashes on China for lack of transparency

The United States' Ambassador to New Zealand has unleashed on China's initial response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, saying it limited how quickly other countries could respond.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of a cluster of pneumonia cases detected in Wuhan, China with an unknown cause. Over the next week, Chinese officials identified the cause as a new type of coronavirus, SARS-Cov-2, which had spread via a seafood market in the city. However, another possible case, who didn't visit the market, has since been identified. 

Nearly 2 million people have now contracted the virus responsible for the COVID-19 illness and 125,000 people have died, with a large portion (609,614) of those cases being recorded in the United States.

US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown told The AM Show on Wednesday that actions could have been implemented quicker to limit the virus' spread in the American nation if China had been more upfront with what it knew.

"We found out about this from China on December 31 and immediately our CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] offered to go to China to help and say 'what's up, let's get a handle on this' and they denied, denied, denied," he told The AM Show.

"We only learnt of the first death on… January 13 and then we had our first death on January 21 and then the WHO on January 30 declared that 'hey, this is a worldwide issue, we gotta get cracking' and the very next day the President shut down all flights from China.

"To say he has not done anything, had we had accurate and transparent information, of course, we would have done it quicker."

According to a Reuters report, Alex Azar, the United States' secretary of Health and Human Services, said he and the CDC's director, Dr Robert Redfield, offered to send a CDC team to China on January 6, but didn't receive permission. 

A joint mission with the WHO and other nations did eventually travel to China between February 16 and 24.

However, Reuters has also reported that an American epidemiologist embedded into China's disease control agency left her job last year after learning it was being defunded by the Trump administration. Bao-Ping Zhu, who worked in the role between 2007 and 2011, said: "If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster". 

According to the New York Times, Dr Redfield was first made aware of the severity of the illness in early January by his Chinese counterpart. Within days, the US began work on an incident management system and began cautioning people travelling to Wuhan.

Despite claims of little transparency from China - which was also criticised for not listening to warnings in December about the emergence of a new virus - the WHO has been full of praise. Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu said in February: "We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated."

Reuters has also cited China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying it "adopted the strictest, most comprehensive, and most thorough prevention and control measures in an open, transparent, and responsible manner, and informed the [World Health Organization] and relevant countries and regions of the latest situation in a timely manner."