Coronavirus: China's slow information release frustrated World Health Organization, new report reveals

Key officials within the World Health Organization (WHO) were privately frustrated by a slow release of COVID-19 information from China at the start of the outbreak, an investigation has found.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that while the WHO publicly praised China for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began there in late December, recordings it has obtained reveal that behind-the-scenes there was frustration building. That included meetings in early January, when officials complained China wasn't sharing enough data to understand the virus' spread or its risk.

"We're currently at the stage where yes, they're giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV," Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO's top member in China, said in one meeting. 

The media outlet says recordings suggest the WHO was positive about the Middle Kingdom in public to coax more information out of its government. 

One of the "significant delays" in information AP mentions is China sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three government labs had decoded the information. Tight controls on information were to blame, AP reports.

The genome was released by the government after another lab published it on January 11. But AP says it was another two weeks before the WHO was provided data on patients.

During the delay, WHO officials debated about how to push China for more information without angering the nation's authorities and potentially damaging their relationship. 

In mid-January, WHO chief of emergencies, Dr Michael Ryan reportedly wanted to apply more pressure on China to avoid a similar situation to what happened with the SARS outbreak in 2002, when China wasn't open about providing information. 

"This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on," he said according to AP.

"WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China."

While getting the genome and patient information earlier could have helped experts to quickly track the virus' spread, Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health professor at the University of Sydney, told AP WHO couldn't be too confrontational or risk being kicked out of China.

He said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus' defence of China's transparency was an issue for the organisation. 

"It’s definitely damaged WHO’s credibility…Did he go too far? I think the evidence on that is clear….it has led to so many questions about the relationship between China and WHO."

At a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jingping in January, Dr Ghebreyesus said the WHO appreciated "the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus".

The WHO Director-General and the Chinese President in January.
The WHO Director-General and the Chinese President in January. Photo credit: Getty.

AP says the WHO declined to answer specific questions without being provided with the recordings.

"Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organization'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," WHO said in a statement.

China's health commission and foreign affairs ministry also didn't comment. 

China has repeatedly defended its actions, with Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi telling The AM Show in April that the country acted "swiftly" to learn as much as it could about the new illness. On May 15, Liu Mingzhu, a top official at China's National health Commission's International Department said the nation had shared information "with the WHO and the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner".

The WHO's constant praise for China has frustrated nations like the United States, which say the health organisation is siding up with China and failing to scrutinise the information it provides about the virus. Donald Trump last week cut the United States' ties with the WHO.

On January 15, the WHO tweeted that a preliminary investigation by Chinese authorities "found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission". AP later found China did know at that time human-to-human transmission was "possible". 

After calls for an investigation into WHO's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, an independent probe was confirmed last month.