Geneva/London – The World Health Organization has updated its account of the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis to say it was alerted by its own office in China, and not by China itself, to the first pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
The U.N. health body has been accused by U.S. President Donald Trump of failing to provide the information needed to stem the pandemic and of being complacent towards Beijing, charges it denies.
On April 9, WHO published an initial timeline of its communications, partly in response to criticism of its early response to the outbreak that has now claimed more than 521,000 lives worldwide.
In that chronology, WHO had said only that the Wuhan municipal health commission in the province of Hubei had on Dec. 31 reported cases of pneumonia. The U.N. health agency did not, however, specify who had notified it.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference on April 20 that the first report had come from China, without specifying whether the report had been sent by Chinese authorities or another source.
But a new chronology, published this week by the Geneva-based institution, offers a more detailed version of events.
It indicates that it was the WHO office in China that on Dec. 31 notified its regional point of contact of a case of “viral pneumonia” after having found a declaration for the media on a Wuhan health commission website on the issue.
The same day, WHO’s epidemic information service picked up another news report transmitted by the international epidemiological surveillance network ProMed — based in the United States — about the same group of cases of pneumonia from unknown causes in Wuhan.
After which, WHO asked the Chinese authorities on two occasions, on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, for information about these cases, which they provided on Jan. 3.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told a news conference Friday that countries have 24-48 hours to officially verify an event and provide the agency with additional information about the nature or cause of an event.
Ryan added that the Chinese authorities immediately contacted the WHO as soon as the agency asked to verify the report.
Trump has announced that his country, the main financial contributor to WHO, will cut its bridges with the institution, which he accuses of being too close to China and of having poorly managed the pandemic.
The WHO denies any complacency toward China.
Also Friday, Tedros told a news briefing that the WHO should soon get results from clinical trials it is conducting of drugs that might be effective in treating COVID-19 patients.
“Nearly 5,500 patients in 39 countries have so far been recruited into the Solidarity trial,” he said, referring to clinical studies the U.N. agency is conducting.
“We expect interim results within the next two weeks.”
The Solidarity Trial started out in five parts looking at possible treatment approaches to COVID-19: standard care; remdesivir; the anti-malaria drug touted by Trump, hydroxychloroquine; the HIV drugs lopinavir/ritonavir; and lopanivir/ritonavir combined with interferon.
Earlier this month, it stopped the arm testing hydroxychloroquine, after studies indicated it showed no benefit in those who have the disease, but more work is still needed to see whether it may be effective as a preventative medicine.
Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies program chief, said it would be unwise to predict when a vaccine could be ready against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than half a million people.
While a vaccine candidate might show its effectiveness by year’s end, the question was how soon it could be mass produced, he told the U.N. journalists’ association ACANU in Geneva.
There is no proven vaccine against the disease now, while 18 potential candidates are being tested on humans.
WHO officials defended their response to the virus that emerged in China last year, saying they had been driven by the science as it developed. Ryan said what he regretted was that global supply chains had broken, depriving medical staff of protective equipment.
“I regret that there wasn’t fair, accessible access to COVID tools. I regret that some countries had more than others, and I regret that front-line workers died because of (that),” he said.
He urged countries to get on with identifying new clusters of cases, tracking down infected people and isolating them to help break the transmission chain.
“People who sit around coffee tables and speculate and talk (about transmission) don’t achieve anything. People who go after the virus achieve things,” he said.
On the sidelines ACANU briefing, another top WHO official said almost 30 percent of genome sequencing data from samples of the COVID-19 virus collected by the body have shown signs of mutation, but there is no evidence this has led to more severe disease.
“I think it’s quite widespread,” said Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist.
The U.N. agency has so far collected 60,000 samples of the disease, she said.
Scientists at Scripps Research this month found that by April the mutated virus accounted for some 65 percent of cases submitted from around the world to a major database.
The genetic mutation in the new coronavirus, designated D614G, significantly increases its ability to infect cells and may explain why outbreaks in northern Italy and New York were larger than ones seen earlier in the pandemic, they found in a study.
Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic at the WHO, said at Friday’s briefing the mutated strain had been identified as early as February and had been circulating in Europe and the Americas.
“So far, there is no evidence it leads to more severe disease,” she said.
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