Top officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) secretly criticised China for not providing information about the novel coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, leaked audio files have revealed.
The recordings, published by Indian TV channel WION, purport to capture Dr Mike Ryan – who is in charge of WHO’s response to Covid – complaining to colleagues during the second week of January that China was not being open with its data.
Comparing the situation to the Sars outbreak in 2003, Ryan can be heard saying: ‘This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China… and then, bang.’
If genuine, then Ryan’s private comments sharply contrast with public statements made by WHO director general Dr Tedros just two weeks later when he praised China’s ‘commitment to transparency’ which he called ‘beyond words’.
Dr Michael Ryan (pictured on March 9, 2020), Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Programme, urged his colleagues to ‘shift gears’ and put more pressure on China to be forthcoming about the virus at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported WION
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove (left), the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, and Dr Gauden Galea (right), the WHO’s China Representative, were also caught on audio files expressing extreme frustration over the lack of information from China, India-based WION reported in late January
The novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in December, 2019 before spreading globally. It has killed more than 2,316,683 people so far. In the picture above, a medical staff attends to an ICU patient at Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, on April 11, 2020
Dr Ryan could also be criticising Chinese medics who told the WHO that there was ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission’ of the virus.
Their statement was parroted wholesale by the WHO, which put out a tweet using the exact same phrasing on January 14 last year.
Comparing the situation to the 2018 Ebola outbreak in Congo, Ryan said: ‘General ‘there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission’ is not good enough.
‘This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places.
‘We need to see the data, we need to be able to determine for ourselves the geographic distribution, the timeline, the epicurve and all of that, it is absolutely important at this point.’
In another clip Ryan appears to say that the data is necessary ‘to protect China’, though the exact context of this remark is unclear.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in the city, became one of the most visible figures in the early days of the outbreak when he tried to warn the world, but was reprimanded by police for ‘spreading rumours’.
The 34-year-old’s death from the virus on February 7, 2020 led to an outpouring of public mourning and rare expressions of anger online.
Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang blew the whistle on the mysterious new coronavirus in December 2019 and died in February 2020 after contracting the virus from a patient. Mourners laid flowers outside his former workplace over the weekend to pay tribute to the brave doctor
The news also comes as a WHO team is researching the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan – a year after the virus ravaged the city of 11million before spreading globally.
Members of the WHO team in Wuhan have repeatedly applauded China for its cooperation over their investigation into the origin of the virus, with one British expert claiming that they were given full access to all sites they had requested.
The WHO has been accused of acting ‘too slow’ in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and showing political bias towards China.
Its Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last year heaped praises on the country’s Communist Party for its response to COVID-19, hailing the regime’s ‘commitment to transparency’ and saying the speed with which it detected the virus was ‘beyond words’.
But a report by WION showed that behind closed doors, WHO officials appeared to be extremely frustrated by China’s failure to provide the agency with information at the beginning of the global health crisis.
The WHO has been accused of acting ‘too slow’ in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and showing political bias towards China. Its Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (centre, pictured on March 9, 2020) has heaped praises on the country’s Communist Party
China’s official timeline vs new evidence
Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection
Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation
Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection
Jan 11 – China reported its first death
Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down
Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases
Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West
Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus
Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus
Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present
Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus
Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date
Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing
Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities
Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city
The explosive revelation, aired on January 27, included audio clips of top WHO officials, including its Executive Director for Health Emergencies Programme Dr Michael Ryan, Technical Lead Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, and Representative in China Dr Gauden Galea, according to WION.
The recordings reportedly captured the WHO’s internal conversations about the novel coronavirus in the second week of January after Wuhan had reported 59 cases of what was then known as the ‘mysterious pneumonia’.
In one of the recordings said to be of Dr Michael Ryan, he told his colleagues to ‘shift gears’ and put more pressure on China to be forthcoming about the outbreak.
He compared the situation to the SARS pandemic, which broke out in China’s Guangdong Province in 2002. The Chinese government was widely accused of covering up its SARS outbreak, which later spread to two dozen countries and killed 774 people.
Dr Ryan reportedly warned his colleagues about what seemed to be a repeat of the withholding strategy by the Chinese government.
He said: ‘This is exactly the same scenario… WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issue it arose around the transparency in southern China.’
Another audio file purported to show Dr Ryan complaining about the lack of data from Beijing, especially those about the virus’s contagiousness.
‘We need to see the data. We need to be able to determine for ourselves, the geographic distribution, the timeline, the epicurve and all of that,’ the recording played.
The WHO official can be heard saying such a move was ‘absolutely important at this point’ and its aim was for the WHO to ‘protect China’.
A third recording was alleged to be of Dr Maria Van Kerkhove who complained about having ‘very minimal information’ about the situation.
‘Knowing a little bit about ventilation and ICU and ECMO and deaths is helpful, but I know it’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning in the way that you would like to,’ she was quoted stating.
The most revealing clip came from Dr Gauden Galea, the WHO’s top man in China, who complained about not getting the specifics from Beijing, reported WION.
A WHO team is currently researching the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan. A security guard is pictured waving at journalists telling them to clear the road after a convoy carrying the WHO team entered the controversial Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan on January 31
Members of the WHO team in Wuhan have repeatedly applauded China for its cooperation over their investigation into the origin of the virus. British-born zoologist Peter Daszak (pictured bumping fists with a colleague in Wuhan) said the team were given full access
Dr Galea was cited saying that his team had been formally and informally requesting epidemiological information, ‘especially what was the date of onset of the last case’.
‘But all we are getting in return for that question is there is a new update that’s going to come out,’ Dr Galea confessed. He added that when his team asked for specifics, ‘we could get nothing’.
WION reported that Dr Galea claimed his team were getting information from China just 15 minutes before it would appear on the state broadcaster CCTV.
In a separate audio file recorded in mid-to-late January, Dr Galea was quoted acknowledging discussions in China that the disease could be passed from humans to humans.
Just days earlier, the WHO had assured the public that the virus was unlikely to be transmissible.
‘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,’ the organisation tweeted.
In the recording released by WION, Dr Galea explained of the U-turn: ‘They are now talking openly and consistently about human-to-human… Their one key request in this regard is that they would like WHO’s help in communicating this to the public, without causing panic.’
On January 22, the WHO’s China mission issued a statement confirming that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan. But the team said more investigation was needed to understand the full extent of transmission.
The WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the pandemic, including accusations from former US President Trump that it parroted Chinese propaganda, hindering early global efforts to control the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 2,316,683 people so far.
Dr Michael Ryan was quoted complaining about the lack of data from China. ‘We need to see the data. We need to be able to determine for ourselves, the geographic distribution, the timeline, the epicurve and all of that,’ an audio file released by Indian TV channel WION played
Last month, an independent panel found that the WHO was too slow to react to the pandemic and is a powerless body unable to ‘enforce anything’.
An investigation into the WHO’s pandemic response found the UN health body’s failings could largely be attributed to the agency’s weak position, with the probe’s report saying more funding and reforms were desperately needed.
The heads of the WHO-backed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response presented the findings to the WHO’s executive board on January 19.
While the panel’s report suggested the WHO should have acted faster and more decisively at the start, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stressed that ‘the bottom line is the WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate… within a country.’
WHO expert claims China granted the team full access in Wuhan
A member of the World Health Organization expert team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan said the Chinese side granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested – a level of openness that even he hadn’t expected.
Peter Daszak told The Associated Press on Friday that team members had submitted a deeply considered list of places and people to include in their investigation and that no objections were raised.
‘We were asked where we wanted to go. We gave our hosts a list … and you can see from where we’ve been, we’ve been to all the key places,’ Daszak said.
‘Every place we asked to see, everyone we wanted to meet. … So really good,’ said the British-born zoologist, who is president of the NGO EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.
British-born zoologist Peter Daszak told The Associated Press on Friday that WHO team members had submitted a deeply considered list of places and people to include in their investigation and that no objections were raised
Daszak said the team has now concluded site visits and will spend the next few days trolling through data and consulting with Chinese experts before presenting a summary of their findings at a news briefing prior to their departure on Wednesday.
‘I can’t really say too much about what we’ve found yet because we’re at that exact point in time where the teams are coming together looking at different pathways, different issues,’ he said.
He said questions include what were the first cases, what was the link with animals and what, if any, was the role of the so-called ‘cold chain’ – the possibility the virus was brought into China on packaging from imported frozen food, an unproven theory that China has long put forward.
‘And of course, we’re looking at every hypotheses that’s been out there and seeing where the data take us and do they point to any particular one,’ Daszak said.
Daszak had high praise for Chinese experts, who had been preparing for the visit for months, particularly deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, with whom he worked to track down the origins of sever acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.
Some, including people close to former President Donald Trump, had speculated the institute may have been the origin of the outbreak because of its large collection of bat virus specimens and that Chinese authorities were covering up the truth.
Daszak had high praise for Chinese experts, who had been preparing for the visit for months, particularly deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli. Daszak and other WHO experts were pictured arriving at the institute on February 3
However, Daszak said they were met during their visit to the high-security institute with a level of openness even he hadn’t anticipated, and that suspicions surrounding it had been ‘politicised on a global scale’.
‘The pressure for this institution I’m sure has been intense so it was really good to have, not just me, but this whole group of international experts be able to ask really insightful questions and also to have all the key people in the room when we did that,’ Daszak said.
China has strongly denied the possibility of a leak from the lab and has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere before being brought to Wuhan, including possibly on imported frozen food packaging.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to deny calls for a strictly independent investigation. Authorities have kept a tight hold on information about the possible causes of the pandemic that has now sickened more than 105million people and killed more than 2.2million worldwide.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May
Daszak said the team was also given wide access when visiting hospitals that treated patients in the initial outbreak at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020.
‘To meet the first clinicians who took in the first patients with COVID, that’s incredible … that you can talk to that person who dealt with that first case and ask her what she saw and ask questions,’ Daszak said.
The same level of access was given at the Huanan Seafood Market that was linked to early case clusters, he said. That included meeting with vendors and market managers and touring the market with those who did the original environmental swabbing that produced signs of the virus even after the market had been closed down.
‘So this is an in-depth, deep understanding of the sites and the people who were involved,’ Daszak said.
The virus is widely suspected to have originated in bats, which also produced the SARS virus, before being passed to humans through an intermediary species, possibly a wild animal such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, considered an exotic delicacy by some in China
Daszak said the investigation by the team, composed of experts from 10 nations, was simply an initial step and that it would likely take years to confirm the origins of the virus. Exhaustive research is needed to pin down an outbreak’s animal reservoir, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
The virus is widely suspected to have originated in bats, which also produced the SARS virus, before being passed to humans through an intermediary species, possibly a wild animal such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, considered an exotic delicacy by some in China. One possible cause is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan but that has yet to be proven.
Among measures taken by China after the initial outbreak, Daszak had specific praise for the 76-day lockdown imposed on Wuhan, a city of 11 million, along with the almost total closure of wildlife markets and breeding farms nationwide.
China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths from COVID-19.
In recent months, China has largely eliminated cases of local transmission, with just six reported on Friday – five in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and one in the eastern financial hub of Shanghai.
Although some social distancing restrictions have been eased, strict testing, quarantines, electronic monitoring and community lockdowns remain in force, while mask-wearing in public is almost universal.