China delayed releasing critical information about the coronavirus in the weeks after the outbreak was first reported – even as the World Health Organization publicly lauded the communist country for its quick response to the pandemic, according to a report on Tuesday.
The WHO in January praised China for “immediately” releasing a genetic map of the coronavirus and said its efforts to be transparent were “very impressive, and beyond words,” The Associated Press reported.
At the same time, WHO officials behind the scenes were frustrated that China was slow-walking their ability to get information to combat the spread of the virus, which had first been reported in late December in Wuhan, China, because they were losing valuable time, according to the report.
“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 during the week of Jan. 6. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
“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 AP reported.
The Chinese Communist Party did not release the genetic map of the virus for more than a week after three government labs had decoded the information, the report said, because of tight controls on releasing data.
The genetic map was finally released after another lab published it on a virologist website on Jan. 11.
It took the Chinese Communist Party another two weeks to provide the WHO with full data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings by the United Nations health agency.
The delay in releasing the genetic data slowed the development of a vaccine and the absence of detailed information about patients made it difficult to determine how quickly the coronavirus was spreading around the world.
Between the time a Chinese lab decoded the info on Jan. 2 and Jan. 30, when the WHO declared a global emergency, the virus spread by a factor of 100 to 200 times, the AP reported, citing infection data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s obvious that we could have saved more lives and avoided many, many deaths if China and the WHO had acted faster,” Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told the wire service.
There are now more than 6 million cases worldwide, and the death toll has surpassed 370,000.
President Trump, who has accused the WHO of colluding with China to hold back data on the coronavirus, last Friday cut ties with the UN agency.
“China has total control over the World Health Organization,” Trump said at the White House, noting that the US contributed $450 million to the WHO each year compared to China’s $40 million.