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How the Chinese authorities and the World Health Organization handled the coronavirus

by Vijay Prashad

Part 4 - Coronavirus and the WHO

China first informed the WHO about the virus on December 31. On a regular basis, the Chinese government sent information to the WHO office in Beijing and—by January 3—informed Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan and relevant countries and regions. On January 4, on its Twitter account, the WHO summarized for the public that there was a “cluster” in Wuhan and that investigations were underway.

On January 9, the Chinese authorities told the WHO about initial progress toward determining the cause of the viral pneumonia. It needs to be understood that at that time there was no clarity about the virus. It was just two days earlier, on January 7, that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the novel coronavirus (nCoV).

The WHO posted a note on its website on January 9. It made two points: first, that the Chinese investigators had done a preliminary identification of the novel virus, which — in such a short period — is “a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks”; second, that such viruses are complex, since “some transmit easily from person to person, while others do not. According to Chinese authorities, the virus in question can cause severe illness in some patients and does not transmit readily between people.

On January 11, the WHO informed the public that it has received “the genetic sequences for the novel coronavirus from the Chinese authorities”; that day, the WHO issued an interim guidance on how to prepare if this virus spread widely.

Two days later, on January 13, based on increased understanding of the lethal virus, the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) told Wuhan City to reduce public gatherings and to check people’s temperature at transport hubs. This was in the public domain. On January 14, the WHO’s technical team held a press briefing, where they said that there was “limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus (in the 41 confirmed cases), mainly through family members, and that there was a risk of a possible wider outbreak.

By January 14, the Chinese authorities and the WHO had made the following clear: there was a new kind of coronavirus that had a limited human-to-human transmission capability and had until now been restricted within China, with one person taking the infection to Thailand from Wuhan. These were all public statements.

Bizarrely, the Associated Press ran a story on April 15 arguing that the Chinese government did not report the news of the outbreak to the public for six crucial days from January 14 to 20; in fact, the Chinese government had informed the U.S. CDC and the WHO on January 3, and had made public statements of what they knew until January 14. After Dr. Zhong Nanshan’s announcement of the lethality of the virus on January 20, everything changed.

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