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AP: The WHO Quietly Complained about Chinese Secrecy in January

Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, attends a news conference on the coronavirus in Geneva, Switzerland, February 24, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The Associated Press does an excellent deep dive into the World Health Organization’s interactions with the Chinese government in January, and finds WHO officials “complained in meetings the week of Jan. 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.”

The AP report concludes the “delay in the release of the genome stalled the recognition of its spread to other countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines. The lack of detailed patient data also made it harder to determine how quickly the virus was spreading — a critical question in stopping it.”

The only problem is that we’re learning about WHO’s internal frustration with China after a lot of investigative reporting at the beginning of June, instead of as it was happening. Officials at WHO felt obligated to lie to the world, repeatedly praising Beijing’s cooperation, response, and transparency and echoing the false Chinese conclusion that the virus could not be spread from one human to another. It is somewhat reassuring to learn that not everyone in the organization agreed with the strategy of doing whatever was necessary to stay on the good side of Xi Jinping. But how much reassurance can we take when the effect of that internal dissent was nil?

Ending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization may or may not be a good idea during a pandemic. But even those who want to continue funding must recognize that the WHO failed in its primary responsibility to provide timely and accurate information about a serious public threat. [Insert every “you had one job” gif here.]

If the WHO is incapable of reforming itself to ensure that it prioritizes accuracy and timeliness, what is the point of the organization? Governments of the world that prioritize accurate information over the sensitive egos of autocratic regimes ought to form their own international organization, to do the job that WHO is unwilling or incapable of doing.

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