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WHO faced 'frustration’ with China's delayed release of vital Covid-19 data

China’s Xi Jinping in his video address before the World Health Assembly, 18 May 2020

China stalled for ‘at least’ two weeks in providing the World Health Organization with detailed data on COVID-19 cases, frustrating WHO’s top echelons –  even as they tried to put on a positive public face, according to an investigative report by the Associated Press of WHO-China exchanges in January.

China also withheld the genome sequence of the COVID-19 virus for over a week, releasing it only on  11 January – although three separate government labs in China had already sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 virus as of 3 January, states the AP report.

Why is this important?

The AP report comes as WHO has faced a hailstorm of criticism from the United States, culminating in Friday’s decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States membership in WHO and terminate US funding.

The AP report provides a fresh narrative of the China-WHO dealings, one which ultimately left the global health organization trapped in a bitter United States-China rivalry. This is despite the fact that WHO’s own interactions with China were laced with frustrations, which officials were loathe to express publicly at the risk of information flow further drying up.

Wedged between two superpowers

As the World Health Organization publicly praised Beijing for ‘immediately’ sharing the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in January, internal WHO meetings recorded the “considerable frustration” of  WHO officials with the “significant delays” in China’s timely release of the gene sequence and other critical information,  according to AP. It said the report was based on dozens of confidential interviews as well as written and audio recordings of internal WHO conversations in early January.

“We have informally and formally been requesting more epidemiological information,” WHO’s top China official, Gauden Galea, was quoted as saying in one meeting. “But when asked for specifics, we could get nothing.

“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving [the necessary information] to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” Galea added, referring to the state-owned China Central Television.

Ultimately, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ efforts to coax China into cooperation, while avoiding public criticism of Beijing, ultimately came with a high price - a loss of trust among other leading western powers, particularly the United States.

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