China, WHO Violated Post-SARS Rules, GOP Analysis Finds

China, WHO Violated Post-SARS Rules, GOP Analysis Finds
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
China, WHO Violated Post-SARS Rules, GOP Analysis Finds
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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By now the broad outlines of the Chinese government’s disinformation campaign in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak are well established. The coverup has spurred international condemnation and deepened the political rifts between Washington and Beijing. It’s also upended President Trump’s once-promising trade detente between the two nations and is prompting a serious rethinking of Sino-global relations.

Now a top Republican on Capitol Hill has uncovered more evidence of the Chinese government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis — information alleging that Beijing violated World Health Organization rules and regulations set up after China’s first Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s to guard against the same type of deadly pandemic the world is struggling to contain.

Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said China failed to learn its lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak, dubbed by experts the first pandemic of the 21st century. The WHO’s member nations, including China, reacted to that outbreak by instituting strict new rules and safeguards requiring the near immediate reporting of any evidence of a threat to public health to the international body.

Through December and into the first weeks of January, McCaul said, Chinese officials flouted those detailed rules, with the inaction directly to blame for spreading coronavirus from nation to nation. The worldwide death toll has now climbed to nearly a quarter-million people and the virus has wreaked havoc on the global economy.

McCaul pointed to a study by England’s Southampton University, which found that if China had acted sooner, it could have cut the virus’ spread by 95%. The Texas Republican has joined President Trump in charging the WHO with covering up key details about the coronavirus crisis on behalf of China. Now, McCaul adds that the WHO also ignored some of its own rules to investigate any unofficial reports of SARS cases it receives.

On Dec. 31, Taiwanese officials have said, they reached out to the WHO with information about SARS cases in China, but the international body ignored those entreaties. Trump last month placed a 60-day freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the WHO while the administration reviews its role in “mismanaging” the coronavirus crisis.

“In 2003, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not properly alert the world to SARS, causing a pandemic. In response the world came together to implement new rules, including strict reporting requirements to the WHO so future pandemics would be averted,” McCaul said in a statement to RealClearPolitics. “But when faced with an impending pandemic once again in 2019, the CCP ignored those rules, allowing COVID-19 to spread, killing hundreds of thousands of people and devastating the global economy.”

Even more troubling, McCaul said, is that the WHO “blindly followed the CCP, delaying necessary action to protect people around the globe.”

“We must hold the CCP and Director General Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] 

accountable to prevent another pandemic from China from reaching our shores,” he said. McCaul, along with 16 other House Republicans, sent a letter to the White House in early April asking the president to condition future funding of the WHO on the director-general’s resignation.

The WHO and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

McCaul’s Democratic counterpart, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, has launched a formal investigation into Trump’s decision to halt the WHO funding amid an ongoing pandemic.

Meanwhile, the committee’s Republicans are pursuing their own inquiry into China’s and the WHO’s roles in the coronavirus outbreak. The panel’s minority staff are working to produce a full report and provided this early analysis on the alleged WHO rules violations to RCP late last week.

After the SARS pandemic in 2003, the WHO convened a working group to evaluate and revise its International Health Regulations, the rules governing its members’ efforts to protect other nations from public health threats with the goal of preventing “unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.”

The WHO adopted the new rules in mid-2005. They included several aimed at notifying the organization “in the most efficient means of communications available” of all events within its territory “which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern,” as well as any health measure taken in response to those events.

The rules also require government officials from the impacted country to “continue to communicate” to WHO “timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information available to it on the notified event.” Those reporting mandates include any “case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of risk, number of cases and deaths, and conditions” affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures the country employed to try to stop it.

Article 6 of those International Health Regulations legally obligate all WHO members to inform WHO of any positive SARS test within 24 hours. By Dec. 27, Chinese health officials knew that the outbreak in Wuhan was caused by a virus 87% similar to the one that caused the 2003 pandemic. By Dec. 30 a Wuhan lab reported that multiple patients had tested positive for an unknown SARS coronavirus.

“At the latest, [the Chinese government] should have reported it to WHO on Dec. 31. Instead, CCP lies to WHO and reports it as pneumonia,” the committee Republicans said in a one-page explanation of its findings. On Dec. 27 and Jan. 3, more Chinese labs began reporting positive SARS cases, but again, the CCP didn’t report to WHO at that time, the committee Republicans found.  

“In fact they didn’t report any SARS cases until they finally alerted the WHO of the virus’ genetic sequence, showing it’s similar to SARS” on Jan. 12.

Articles 6 and 7 of the IHR rules also legally obligate all WHO members to provide the WHO with all relevant public health information, including lab results. On Jan. 2, the Wuhan Institute of Virology completed a mapping of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus responsible for the outbreak. Instead of reporting that information, China sat on it for 10 days and sent it to the WHO only after a researcher in Shanghai published his own genetic mapping results online, the committee Republicans found.

The Chinese government subsequently shut down the Shanghai Public Health Center, where the researcher worked.

In the midst of China’s failure to report the virus to the WHO in late December, the WHO reportedly ignored Taiwanese officials’ Dec. 31 reporting on SARS cases in China. Such a failure to follow up on those reports from Taiwan constitutes a violation of Article 9 of the WHO rules mandating the body investigate unofficial reports that warn of SARS cases.

Five days later, a member of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control at the University of Hong Kong, which works with the WHO to strengthen surveillance of viruses and plan emergency responses to new pathogens, publicly warned about the high likelihood of human-to-human transmission of COVID-19

“Despite being designated by the WHO as an expert in emergency response to novel outbreaks, there is no evidence that the WHO investigated his warnings,” the panel’s Republicans asserted. “In addition, [the WHO] continued to parrot a CCP lie that the disease wasn’t transmitted human-to-human until the CCP confirmed it was occurring on Jan. 29, including this tweet on Jan. 14.”

Over the last few days, more U.S. allies and other countries have joined the Trump administration’s call for a formal investigation into China and the WHO and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China on Friday threatened Australian officials with economic repercussions after they joined the United States in calling for an independent international investigation into the emergence of the pandemic as well as the WHO’s response to the crisis. Australian officials, however, refused to back down, upping the ante by calling for Taiwan, an autonomous country that China considers a renegade province, to join the WHO. (Beijing has blocked its membership for half a century.)

Sweden also has backed similar calls, while the president of the European Commission said a probe is needed but that Beijing should be involved in the process. Meanwhile, German and French officials have demanded more information from China.

“There are two sets of issues at stake. One is what did China know and when did it know it? The other is what did the WHO know and when did it know it?” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow and China expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told RCP.

In addition to the WHO rules governing reporting, China also appears to have violated its own emergency response system put in place after SARS to handle outbreaks of major diseases, Cheng said. A year ago, Chinese heath officials publicly said their state-of-the-art early warning system would prevent an epidemic on the scale of the SARS outbreak in 2003. However, “what has emerged from the Hong Kong and foreign press and even some internal reporting was that the system was circumvented when senior officials either chose not to activate it or actively suppressed information,” Cheng said.

The role and responsibility of the WHO is harder to determine, Cheng said. While its member countries are required to report disease outbreaks under the IHRs, the WHO seldom enforces the rules even though they are legally binding.

Pedro Villarreal, a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, in late March wrote an article about countries’ obligations under the IHRs, concluding that the WHO enforcement mechanism needs serious reforms.

“Suffice it to say, there is increasing recognition that the existing norms do not live up to their purpose and need an overhaul,” he wrote.

In determining the WHO’s full culpability, Cheng said it’s critical to find out exactly what early information China provided to it. Still, Cheng said it’s clear from publicly available information that the WHO violated its own rules when it failed to act on the early information Taiwan and Hong Kong provided about the new virus and its contagiousness.

That information breakdown, he said, is the WHO’s “biggest failure.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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