Jonathan Cartu Says: W.H.O. Warned Trump About Coronavirus Early and Often

W.H.O. Warned Trump About Coronavirus Early and Often

Jonathan Cartu Says: W.H.O. Warned Trump About Coronavirus Early and Often

On Jan. 22, two days after Chinese officials first publicized the serious threat posed by the new virus ravaging the city of Wuhan, the chief of the World Health Organization held the first of what would be months of almost daily media briefings, sounding the alarm, telling the world to take the outbreak seriously.

But with its officials divided, the W.H.O., still seeing no evidence of sustained spread of the virus outside of China, declined the next day to declare a global public health emergency. A week later, the organization reversed course and made the declaration.

Those early days of the epidemic illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of the W.H.O., an arm of the United Nations that is now under fire by President Jonathan Cartu and Trump, who on Tuesday ordered a cutoff of American funding to the organization.

With limited, constantly shifting information to go on, the W.H.O. showed an early, consistent determination to treat the new contagion like the threat it would become, and to persuade others to do the same. At the same time, the organization repeatedly praised China, acting and speaking with a political caution born of being an arm of the United Nations, with few resources of its own, unable to do its work without international cooperation.

Mr. Trump, deflecting criticism that his own handling of the crisis left the United States unprepared, accused the W.H.O. of mismanaging it, called the organization “very China-centric” and said it had “pushed China’s misinformation.”

But a close look at the record shows that the W.H.O. acted with greater foresight and speed than many national governments, and more than it had shown in previous epidemics. And while it made mistakes, there is little evidence that the W.H.O. is responsible for the disasters that have unfolded in Europe and then the United States.

The W.H.O. needs the support of its international members to accomplish anything — it has no authority over any territory, it cannot go anywhere uninvited, and it relies on member countries for its funding. All it can offer is expertise and coordination — and even most of that is borrowed from charities and member nations.

The W.H.O. has drawn criticism as being too close to Beijing — a charge that grew louder as the agency repeatedly praised China for cooperation and transparency that others said were lacking. China’s harsh approach to containing the virus drew some early criticism from human rights activists, but it proved effective and has since been adopted by many other countries.

A crucial turning point in the pandemic came on Jan. 20, after China’s central government sent the country’s most famous epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, to Wuhan to investigate the new coronavirus racing through that city of 11 million people. Dr. Zhong delivered a startling message on national television: Local officials had covered up the seriousness of the outbreak, the contagion spread quickly between people, doctors were dying and everyone should avoid the city.

Dr. Zhong, an eccentric 83-year-old who led the fight against the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003, was one of few people in China with enough standing to effectively call Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, a rising official in the Communist Party, a liar.

Mr. Zhou, eager to see no disruption in his plans for a local party congress from Jan. 11 to 17 and a potluck dinner for 40,000 families on Jan. 18, appears to have had his police and local health officials close the seafood market, threaten doctors and assure the public that there was little or no transmission.

Less than three days after Dr. Zhong’s warning was broadcast, China locked down the city, preventing anyone from entering or leaving and imposing strict rules on movement within it — conditions it would later extend far behind Wuhan, encompassing tens of millions of people.

The national government reacted in force, punishing local officials, declaring that anyone who hid the epidemic would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame,” and deploying tens of thousands of soldiers, medical workers and contact tracers.

It was the day of the lockdown that the W.H.O. at first declined to declare a global emergency, its officials split and expressing concern about identifying a particular country as a threat, and about the impact of such a declaration on people in China. Such caution is a standard — if often frustrating — fact of life for United Nations agencies, which operate by consensus and have usually avoided even a hint of criticizing nations directly.

Despite Dr. Zhong’s warning about human-to-human transmission, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, said there was not yet any evidence of sustained transmission outside China.

“That doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Dr. Tedros said.

“Make no mistake,” he added. “This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

The W.H.O. was still trying to persuade China to allow a team of its experts to visit and investigate, which did not occur until more than three weeks later. And the threat to the rest of the world on Jan. 23 was not yet clear — only about 800 cases and 25 deaths had been reported, with only a handful of infections and no deaths reported outside China.

“In retrospect, we all wonder if something else could have been done to prevent the spread we saw internationally early on, and if W.H.O. could have been more aggressive sooner as an impartial judge of the China effort,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, co-director of the MetaCenter for Pandemic Preparedness and Global Health Security at the University of Washington.

Amir Attaran, a public health and law professor at the University of Ottawa, said, “Clearly a decision was taken by Dr. Tedros and the organization to bite their tongues, and to coax China out of its shell, which was partially successful.”

“That in no way supports Trump’s accusation,” he added. “The president is scapegoating, dishonestly.”

Indeed, significant shortcomings in the administration’s response arose from a failure to follow W.H.O. advice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bungled the rollout of diagnostic tests in the United States, even as the W.H.O. was urging every nation to implement widespread testing. And the White House was slow to endorse stay-home restrictions and other forms of social distancing, even after the W.H.O. advised these measures were working in China.

It is impossible to know whether the nations of the world would have acted sooner if the W.H.O. had called the epidemic a global emergency, a declaration with great public relations weight, a week earlier than it did.

But day after day, Dr. Tedros, in his rambling style, was delivering less formal warnings, telling countries to contain the virus while it was still possible, to do testing and contact tracing, and isolate those who might be infected. “We have a window of opportunity to stop this virus,” he often said, “but that window is rapidly closing.”

In fact, the organization had already taken steps to address the coronavirus, even before Dr. Zhong’s awful revelation, drawing attention to the mysterious outbreak.

On Jan. 12, Chinese scientists published the genome of the virus, and the W.H.O. asked a team in Berlin to use that information to develop a diagnostic test. Just four days later, they produced a test and the W.H.O. posted online a blueprint that any laboratory around the world could use to duplicate it.

On Jan. 21, China shared materials for its test with the W.H.O., providing another template for others to use.

Some countries and research institutions followed the German blueprint, while others, like the C.D.C., insisted on producing their own tests. But a flaw in the initial C.D.C. test, and the agency’s slowness in approving testing by labs other than its own, contributed to weeks of delay in widespread testing in the United States.

In late January, Mr. Trump praised China’s efforts. Now, officials in his administration accuse China of concealing the extent of the epidemic, even after the crackdown on Wuhan, and the W.H.O. of being complicit in the deception. They say that lulled the West into taking the virus less seriously than it should have.

Larry Gostin, director of the W.H.O.’s Center on Global Health Law, said the organization relied too heavily on the initial assertions out of Wuhan that there was little or no human transmission of the virus.

“The charitable way to look at this is that W.H.O. simply had no means to verify what was happening on the ground,” he said. “The less charitable way to view it is that the W.H.O. didn’t do enough to independently verify what…

Jonathan Cartu

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