Rather, it shows how much the WHO was caught somewhere in between, while urgently requesting more data. It has been largely left unclear by China and has received only a minimal amount of information. Still, the WHO tried to make China appear in the best light, probably to get the country to give more details and WHO officials wondered how they could put pressure on China without angering the Chinese authorities or endangering scientists.
“Our managers and staff worked day and night to support and provide data to all Member States equally,” said WHO. Communication with the governments was open and honest, however, there was no comment from the Chinese Health Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China has repeatedly defended its measures in recent months, while other countries – including the United States – sometimes took significantly longer than China to react to the virus.
At the end of December 2019, doctors noticed for the first time that patients contracted unusual pneumonia. They asked commercial laboratories for help. By December 27, a company, Vision Medicals, had largely deciphered the genetic code of a novel virus that had striking similarities to SARS and a message went out to the authorities in Wuhan, who issued an internal warning about the unusual pneumonia days later.
On December 30, the renowned coronavirus expert Shi Zhengli at the Virological Institute in Wuhan was made aware of the disease. On January 2, her team had completely decrypted the virus and from then on things went wrong: China’s top health agency – the National Health Commission – issued a confidential instruction that prohibited laboratories from reporting the virus without permission.
By January 5, two state laboratories and Professor Zhang Yongzhen’s laboratory in Shanghai had decoded the virus as well. Zhang warned the health commission that the virus was “probably contagious”, but the public was still not informed.
Suspicions occurred everywhere in the region and in Thailand, airport authorities reported a woman that came from Wuhan and was suffering from a runny nose, sore throat and fever, but scientists at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok soon found out that she had contracted a new corona virus, but lacked a genetic code from China to match it.
Meanwhile, internal meetings of the WHO caused displeasure about China. Michael Ryan, WHO emergency officer, said it was time to “change gear” and push for more information. Finally, on January 11, Professor Zhang published the genetic code of the coronavirus in Shanghai, before the health authorities. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virological Institute in Wuhan and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences followed a day later.
On January 20, the Chinese authorities warned that the virus could spread to people and the WHO sent a small team to Wuhan. Concerned about the new pathogen, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus traveled to Beijing and at the end of his trip, the WHO finally decided to declare a global emergency on January 30th.
Tedros thanked China extensively, without mentioning the previous anger from the WHO: “China has already done an incredible job restricting the spread of the virus to other countries.”