China and the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) were slow and ineffective in their response to the first stages of the coronavirus outbreak, an damning interim report released Tuesday concludes.
The Switzerland-based Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said its evaluation of the start of the crisis in China “suggests that there was potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly.”
Containment measures should have been implemented immediately in all countries where transmission was likely, the 13-member panel said in their critical analysis, due to be presented to the W.H.O.’s executive board.
The first cases in Wuhan occurred in November last year, according to city authorities, who already stand accused of downplaying the infection rate.
REVEALED: Chinese researchers say coronavirus infections in the city of Wuhan were at least three times as numerous as the official count. https://t.co/aOaJQRmMHR
— Breitbart News (@BreitbartNews) January 11, 2021
The cases weren’t reported to W.H.O. until December 31. By the time Wuhan went under lockdown on January 23, 2020 the virus had already moved to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States.
That spread came after the W.H.O. promoted a Chinese claim via Twitter there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.”
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
It was not until January 22 that the W.H.O. admitted there was evidence of “person-to-person transmission,” adding that it was not “unexpected”:
There is evidence of person-to-person transmission among close contacts such as in families or in health care settings. This is not unexpected with a respiratory disease. We have not seen any evidence of onward transmission such as 3rd, 4th generation transmission – @mvankerkhove
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 22, 2020
The W.H.O. resisted calling the coronavirus a global health emergency until another week later, on January 30:
I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of #2019nCoV, not because of what is happening in #China, but because of what is happening in other countries.https://t.co/HNrxyGeoBA
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) January 30, 2020
When U.S. President Donald Trump ordered travel restrictions from China that same day, W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hit back by saying, “We oppose it.” He added: “This is the time for facts, not fear; for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said on February 2. Travel restrictions were not needed to stop the outbreak and could “have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit,” he said.
All of which was too little, too late.
The panel said it was clear “public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January.”
“It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, nor is it clear why it was unable to agree on the (PHEIC) declaration… when it was first convened,” the report said, noting the reluctance of Tedros to say or do anything that might point to China’s bungled reponse or the W.H.O.’s own complicity:
"The speed with which #China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive. So is 🇳’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries"-@DrTedros #2019nCoV
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 30, 2020
Just over a year after the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in Wuhan, experts agree the official tally of over two million deaths and close to 100 million infections is an underestimate.
And according to the panel report, the case numbers have been undercounted from the start.
“In retrospect, it is clear that the volume of infections in the early period of the epidemic in all countries was higher than reported,” it said, noting a “largely hidden epidemic” drove the global spread of disease.
AFP contributed to this report