China sat on releasing genetic map, or genome, of coronavirus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information, Associated Press finds.

In this January 28, 2020, file photo, Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In this January 28, 2020, file photo, Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP Archive)

Throughout January, the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus. It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus "immediately" and said its work and commitment to transparency were "very impressive, and beyond words."

But behind the scenes, it was a much different story, one of significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, The Associated Press has found.

Despite the plaudits, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. 

Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.

Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on January 11. 

Even then, China stalled for at least two weeks more on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the UN health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.

WHO coaxed Beijing? 

WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government, the recordings obtained by the AP suggest. 

Privately, they complained in meetings the week of January 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.

"We're going on very minimal information," said American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, now WHO's technical lead for Covid-19, in one internal meeting. 

"It's clearly not enough for you to do proper planning."

WHO under fire

"We're currently at the stage where yes, they're giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV," said WHO's top official in China, Dr Gauden Galea, referring to the state-owned China Central Television, in another meeting.

The story behind the early response to the virus comes at a time when the UN health agency is under siege, and has agreed to an independent probe of how the pandemic was handled globally. 

After repeatedly praising the Chinese response early on, US President Donald Trump has blasted WHO in recent weeks for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the coronavirus crisis. 

He cut ties with WHO on Friday, jeopardising the approximately $450 million the US gives every year as WHO's biggest single donor.

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Source: AP