Exclusive: WHO backs China, says it shared critical data to combat the coronavirus

Allan Jacob, world health organisation, WHO, Geneva, Khaleej Times, China, Wuhan, Dr Margaret Harris

Dubai - There have been accusations that China has not be entirely transparent and denied access to international experts.


Allan Jacob

Published: Sun 29 Mar 2020, 9:02 PM

Last updated: Tue 31 Mar 2020, 1:23 AM

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has denied that its early assessment of the scale of the coronavirus outbreak was flawed after the crisis erupted in Wuhan in January. It said China has been transparent and cooperative since the beginning of the outbreak and has contained it while sharing critical data with the world body.

In an interview with Khaleej Times from Geneva, Dr Margaret Harris, a senior official with the WHO's Covid-19 response team, said the health body made the right decisions from the start by warning other countries about the danger posed by the new virus and how swiftly it could spread to the farthest corners of the world. The warnings were for countries to ramp up their health systems to prepare for the worst and to test as many people as possible.

Wuhan and Hubei provinces of 70 million people went into lockdown on January 23, after China reported the virus to the WHO on December 31, 2019. "WHO first alerted the world to the potential seriousness of the outbreak on January 5 after receiving notification of a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan," said Dr Harris when asked if health officials were slow in reacting to the crisis during the early stages of what was then dismissed as an outbreak restricted to China by many governments.

She clarified the WHO convened an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations in the middle of January. The Committee held several meetings and decided to advise the Director-General to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30. By then, the virus had spread globally. Italy, the country with the second most cases after the US now, banned flights to China the very next day, on January 31. The US imposed restrictions on travelers from China on February 4 and other countries followed suit with bans and restrictions on flights, but the magnitude of a global catastrophe was only beginning to unravel.

Was it a mistake in hindsight not to advise bans on travel and trade? Such an emergency does not warrant a comprehensive travel or trade ban, said the official. "Based on the Emergency Committee's recommendations, WHO does not recommend restrictions on travel and trade."

But what she said next could point to clues on why the disease spread quicker than expected. "Countries may choose to implement travel restrictions based on their particular circumstances and context." So did countries hold back harsher measures in their bid keep their economies afloat, hoping that this virus would vanish on its own? These decisions or the lack of them have triggered debates, but the WHO appears to have thrown the ball in the court of governments based on their virus threat perceptions.

"Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic for more than 24 hours may have a public health rationale at the beginning of the containment of an outbreak," Dr Harris said. Incidentally, she had criticized US President Donald Trump's decision to ban all flights from Europe earlier this month.

Such curbs may allow affected countries to implement sustained response measures, and non-affected countries to gain time to initiate and implement effective preparedness measures. "Restrictions, however, need to be short, proportionate to the public health risks, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves," Dr Harris said.

When asked if China had been transparent, she said Beijing has continuously shared data daily with the WHO. "China also recoded and published the entire genome of the virus which permitted scientists around the world to develop diagnostic tests and to start to work on candidate vaccines," she said echoing WHO Director-General Dr Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyssus, who lauded Beijing's handling of the crisis in January.

There have been accusations that China has not be entirely transparent and denied access to international experts. She said the WHO was invited in early and sent an advance team in the first week of February. The full team took longer to assemble as they had to make travel arrangements and get permissions from institutions there were associated with.

Wuhan was then in lockdown and Chinese officials the international health team wished to speak to were preoccupied with managing the outbreak. "There were also concerns fort the safety of the expert team," she said.

The virus is believed to have originated in bats and the doctor said increasing evidence demonstrates a link between Covid-19 and other similar coronaviruses in Rhinolophus bats. The intermediary host in not known but some research points to the Pangolin, a scaled mammal.


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