Coronavirus

WHO Officials Privately Vented About China’s Secrecy As They Publicly Praised Regime

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping
World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping / Getty Images

The World Health Organization praised the Chinese government's early response to the coronavirus even as WHO officials privately expressed frustration about China's refusal to hand over life-saving data, according to a new report.

The WHO has remained a steadfast cheerleader of the Chinese regime since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, commending its "openness to sharing information" with global health authorities and other countries as early as January 28. But the Associated Press found that WHO officials were frustrated by the Chinese government's refusal to share genome data dating back to the first days of the outbreak. The delayed release of such data set back the global response to the deadly disease by weeks. The disease has now infected more than 6 million people worldwide.

"We're going on very minimal information," said American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for the pandemic, in one internal meeting. "It's clearly not enough for you to do proper planning."

Multiple Chinese researchers figured out the full genome of the virus as early as January 2, but the Chinese government kept the WHO in the dark about it, according to the report. The genome data was made public only on January 11, when a Shanghai-based research lab published it without official approval.

WHO officials also complained that the Chinese government refused to share other basic data about the pandemic, stymying fact-finding efforts.

"We have informally and formally been requesting more epidemiological information," Dr. Gauden Galea, the WHO's top official in China, said in an internal meeting. "But when asked for specifics, we could get nothing."

Stonewalled by Beijing, the WHO repeatedly praised the Chinese government's coronavirus response throughout January to convince China to divulge more information about the virus, according to the report. Chinese researchers had a considerable head start over their peers at the time, as the virus was still largely confined to mainland China. State officials refused assistance from foreign scientists.

The WHO has continued to praise the Chinese government's coronavirus response to the present day, despite the fact that the virus's global spread means Chinese researchers no longer have a monopoly on research about the coronavirus. For example, Van Kerkhove, the WHO official who criticized China's lack of transparency in January, applauded China as an example to be followed during a May press conference.

"The world has learned from China," Van Kerkhove said. "And we need to continue to learn from Wuhan on how they are lifting those measures, how they are bringing society back to normal."

WHO supports the Chinese government on matters unrelated to the pandemic as well. Bowing to Chinese pressure, the international organization has refused to renew Taiwan's WHO membership since 2016. After Taiwan revealed the WHO had repeatedly ignored its questions about the coronavirus in March, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded by accusing Taiwan of orchestrating a racist smear campaign against him. Taiwan denied Tedros's accusations.

In response to growing concerns about the WHO's handling of the pandemic, the Trump administration officially terminated U.S. funding for and membership in the international organization in late May. The White House decision followed months of repeated allegations that the WHO colluded with the Chinese government to whitewash Beijing's botched response to the coronavirus.