While highly sceptic on Beijing’s official narrative and the WHO’s public applauding of the PCC’s handling of the crisis – as when its Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commended China for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and praised the country’s top leadership for its “openness to sharing information” with the WHO and other countries on January 28 after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping -, one question that had not yet sprung to my mind regarded the storytelling of the December 31st notice to the WHO on the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
Though many have rightfully concentrated on the tardiness of that notice, I do not recall any attention being paid to the question who actually provided that first international warning. In fact, international news outlets reported it was Chinese authorities that informed the WHO and other countries on December 31st on the outbreak. But a closer look at WHO’s communications in regard, as well as a timeline published by Chinese state agency Xinhua seem to tell a very different story. One that comes with big questions. Bear with me.
On January 5th, the WHO publishes its first press release on the novel coronavirus in which it states:
In a ongoing thread with Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), WHO reports the following for December 31, 2019:
It is this thread that informs for example CNN to report that notice was given by Chinese authorities on December 31st. However, did they? Nowhere does the WHO’s statement actually cite China as the source of the information received on that date. It seems rather odd that given the usual excessive praise, no more attention is being dedicated to naming the source of the information, which remains anonymous. Moreover, it is not clear from the above statement whether the information “according to (national) authorities were provided on that date. However, the following brings more insight and sufficient grounds to doubt that was the case.
In a tweet-thread published by the WHO on April 29th, some additional details are provided:
In all three communications, no source is provided for the December 31st report, which was “picked up” by the WHO China Country Office in two statements, and by WHO’s Epidemic Intelligence System in the aforementioned Twitter thread. None of these statements expressly name Chinese authorities as the source of this report, but rather specify specifically in two statements, that on the basis of this report information was requested on January 1st to national authorities in Beijing, who responded on January 3rd, providing the first data on the number of cases and the possible source of infection (the Huanan Seafood Market). Remarkably, on the exact same date the WHO sends it information request, according to media reports the Market is closed for environmental sanification and disinfection.
While the interpretation in WHO’s use of language may leave much space for doubt, not excluding explicitly it was Chinese authorities providing the initial report, paradoxically it is Chinese State agency Xinhua to do so. On April 6, Xinhua publishes a long Timeline of China releasing information on COVID-19 and advancing international cooperation on epidemic response.
After the usual self-celebration of the Chinese Communist Party and its excellent handling of the epidemic, the document confirms the doubts provoked by the WHO’s statements. While the timeline begins in “late December”, there is no mention of any exchange of information with the WHO or other countries before January 3rd:
While it is striking how Xinhua notoriously does not mention the Dec. 31 report to the WHO, another timeline published by the WHO, updated to April 27, the WHO finally does name the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China as a source for a report on Wuhan on December 31st:
However, while a Chinese authority is finally named, contrary to the afore-quoted statements, this time no reference is made to whom the report was made to, nor is the WHO named as a recipient. Xinhua’s timeline provides some more insight on those late December communications:
As noted before, Xinhua’s timeline makes no express mention of international notifications before the January 3rd response to the WHO’s requests. In fact, the above-stated information appears to have been shared only with “medical institutions under its jurisdiction” and “in accordance with the law”. It is apparent that the National Health Commission was informed under these provisions a they made arrangements for an expert team and guidelines on December 31, possibly including the decision to sanitise the Huanan Seafood Market before due investigations were conducted?
Overall, the lack of express mention by either the WHO and the Chinese authorities on the issuing of that December 31 report by the Chinese authorities provides significant ground for questioning. It seems apparent that Chinese authorities, by their own admission through the Xinhua timeline, did not actively provide any information to the WHO on that date. But who then did the WHO receive the Dec. 31 warning from, prompting it to send a request for information to Beijing, and why is that source not named?
The only plausible explanation seems to be provided by the information request sent to the WHO by Taiwan on December 31, 2019. In an email rendered public by Taiwanese authorities on April 11, in fact Taiwan CDC contacts the WHO IHR Focal Point (as well as the Chinese CDC), citing news resources from Wuhan that reported at least seven atypical cases of pneumonia. “Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not SARS; however the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment. I would greatly appreciate it if you have relevant information to share with us.”
Not only remains Taiwan excluded from participating in WHO proceedings due to a Chinese veto, the only response it received to its inquiry was a short message stating that Taiwan’s information had been forwarded to expert colleagues. However, we know the WHO sent a request for information to Chinese authorities the following day. In light of this sequence, based on the information publicly available to us, it appears more than legitimate to ask the WHO: who provided the initial report on December 31, 2019, that instructed the WHO to act? If it was not Chinese authorities, why is the source not named? If it was not Chinese authorities, how do you intend to act re this clear violation of International Health Regulations? And maybe the most important question of all, to Chinese authorities: if you did not provide the original notice, were you intent, and if yes when, to provide information on the COVID19 outbreak in Wuhan, China?
The questions posed in this article may prove false, and a simple publication of the report received by the WHO on December 31st, citing the source, would suffice to take away doubts. Yet, as we have seen, in this case many of the simplest questions remain unanswered. Why?
As the plot continues to thicken, an independent international investigation is becoming more and more essential by the day, not only to get to the bottom of what happened (and what little may remain to be found if China ever decides to let such a team in), but to prevent the exact same thing from happening again in the future. Responsibilities of both Chinese authorities and WHO leadership must be assessed urgently, for the sake of humanity as a whole! The world has a right to know!