WHO expert says China too slow to report coronavirus cases
Emergency committee member hits out at Beijing’s ‘reprehensible’ response
A worker sets up beds at a stadium that has been converted into a temporary hospital in Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak © Reuters Primrose Riordan and Sue-Lin Wong in Hong Kong 10 HOURS AGO8 A member of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee on coronavirus has accused China of not reporting cases fast enough in the early stages of the outbreak, raising fresh questions about Beijing’s response to the health emergency. John Mackenzie, emeritus professor at Curtin University, said it defied logic that there was no increase in new cases at the same time that Chinese officials were holding local political meetings in January. “There must have been more cases happening that we weren’t being told about. I think they tried to keep the figures quiet for a while because of some major meeting they had in Wuhan but I think there was a period of very poor reporting, or very poor communication,” he said, calling Beijing’s response “reprehensible”. “I think [China] were very quick to let WHO know . . . about it being a novel disease, they were very quick in being able to isolate the virus and share the genome sequence but I think on some of the more government public health type issues, they have been rather recalcitrant.” Prof Mackenzie’s comments come even as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, has praised China’s response, saying Beijing had “helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries”. The emergency committee recently said the outbreak should be declared a “public health emergency of international concern”, a designation that enabled better international co-ordination between governments. The decision came after the WHO was split over whether to make such a declaration. The virus was identified and reported to the WHO at the end of December, China moved to stop all travel in and out of Wuhan on January 23, after millions had already left the province. But there have been differences between countries in how those who have visited the city have been quarantined. Some countries, such as the US and Australia, have imposed a travel ban on foreign nationals who have recently visited China. Coronavirus: how far will it spread? Prof Mackenzie said if more confirmed cases had been reported, it may have led to greater international pressure on Beijing to introduce more controls. “There was a period there I think, had they been a bit stronger earlier on they might have been able to restrict the number of cases not only in China but also overseas,” he said. “Other countries could have been a little bit more careful at monitoring people into that country, knowing where they were and following up in case they are sick.” He added that it was possible the virus had been transmitted as early as November, according to some modelling. Recommended AnalysisCoronavirus Tale of two doctors reveals how China controls the narrative Analysts say local officials are more fearful of being blamed for disasters under President Xi Jinping and there is growing evidence of a crackdown on would-be whistleblowers. In January, Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, admitted that information about the coronavirus was not disclosed in a “timely manner” in the early stages of the outbreak. A public health expert who works with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Health Commission said internal politics were partly to blame. “The broader political climate in China definitely slowed the response rate. Because of Xi and the centralisation of his control, the CDC and Health Commission were more cautious to act initially,” the expert said.