Coronavirus: World Health Organization first alerted to COVID-19 outbreak by its own office - not China

The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its early account that China first alerted it to the emerging SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus - now revealing the alarm was raised by its own China-based office.

The U-turn follows months of US President Donald Trump aiming fire at the UN health body for its handling of the pandemic, accusing the organisation of showing leniency towards China. In May, the President claimed China had "total control" of the WHO and announced that US funding would be suspended indefinitely. Experts have also suggested that the WHO has pandered to China to avoid damaging their relationship, including showering the nation with frequent praise for its response to the outbreak.

In April, the WHO published an timeline of its response to the virus, which was first detected in China's Hubei Province in December 2019.      

The first record in the chronology claims the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of pneumonia cases on December 31, leading to the identification of a novel coronavirus. 

"31 Dec 2019: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China, reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province. A novel coronavirus was eventually identified," the timeline begins.

However, the record failed to directly specify who notified the UN health body of the outbreak.

On April 20, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom told a press conference that the first report of the illness - later known as COVID-19 - came from China. Yet as noted by Agence France-Presse (AFP), Adhanom failed to specify whether the report had come directly from Chinese authorities, or from another source.

Now, the WHO has released an updated timeline. Published on June 30, the new chronology offers greater detail regarding the crucial first days of its response.   

The first record, again dated December 31, now indicates it was the WHO's office in China that notified its regional point of contact of a case of "viral pneumonia" - after finding a media declaration on the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission's website.

"31 Dec 2019: WHO's Country Office in the People’s Republic of China picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website on cases of 'viral pneumonia' in Wuhan, People's Republic of China," says the record.

"The Country Office notified the International Health Regulations (IHR) focal point in the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office about the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission media statement of the cases and provided a translation of it."

That same day, the organisation's epidemic intelligence from open sources platform picked up another news report on ProMED - a programme of the International Society for Infectious Diseases - regarding the same Wuhan-based cluster of pneumonia cases stemming from an "unknown cause". 

"Several health authorities from around the world contacted WHO seeking additional information," the December 31 record concludes.

On January 1, the WHO said it requested information on the reported cluster of unusual pneumonia cases from Chinese authorities. 

According to the updated timeline, Chinese officials provided information to the WHO on the cluster of cases on January 3.

A timeline released by the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China, published on April 6, supports WHO's more detailed chronology. 

It confirms the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued an "urgent notification to medical institutions" on December 30 following the detection of the cases. It says the commission then released a briefing on its website, confirming 27 cases of the 'viral pneumonia', on December 31. 

On January 3, the timeline claims that China began "regularly informing the WHO, relevant countries and regions... about the pneumonia outbreak", and also began to inform the US of any developments. 

In a press conference on Friday, WHO emergencies director Dr Michael Ryan said countries have 24 to 48 hours to officially authenticate an event and provide WHO with additional information. 

He added that Chinese authorities immediately responded when the WHO requested verification of the media report.

However, a report by the Associated Press (AP) in early June claimed that key WHO officials were privately frustrated by China's initially slow release of information. The report says that during meetings in early January, officials complained that China wasn't sharing enough data for the WHO to formulate a comprehensive understanding the virus.

The investigation claimed that Dr Ryan reportedly wanted to apply pressure on China for more open and transparent communication, saying the WHO "endlessly trying to get updates" was reminiscent of the SARS pandemic in 2002. 

In May, President Trump accused China of ignoring its reporting obligations to the WHO in the initial stages of the outbreak, suggesting China organised a "cover-up" - an allegation China denied. 

China has repeatedly defended its alleged lack of transparency, with Liu Mingzhu, a top official at China's National health Commission's International Department, saying the nation had shared information "with the WHO and the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner".