COVID-19 | Taiwan, WHO clash over ‘early warning’ claim

The health body is accused of ignoring alert on human-to-human transmission.

April 11, 2020 10:05 pm | Updated April 12, 2020 10:13 am IST

Taiwan's Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung.

Taiwan's Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung.

Taiwan on Saturday released the text of its December 31 communication with the World Health Organization (WHO) that has been at the centre of a controversy about the first warnings of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Both Taiwan and the U.S. had accused the WHO of ignoring a December 31 warning of “human-to-human transmissions” from what was then an unknown pneumonia.

Also read: Taiwan condemns ‘groundless’ accusations that it attacked WHO chief

On Saturday, Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung quoted the text of the December 31 email, which read: “News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, China. Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not to be SARS, however, the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment. I would greatly appreciate if you have relevant information to share with us.”

The email did not mention human-to-human transmissions, but Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, in a tweet, said, “treated in isolation means human-to-human transmission”.

Alert to WHO

The communication did not, however, carry additional information beyond what the WHO had been informed by Wuhan authorities. The WHO said on January 5 that its country office in China was on December 31 “informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause)” and “national authorities report that all patients are isolated and receiving treatment in Wuhan medical institutions.” “Based on the preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team,” the WHO concluded then, “no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and no healthcare worker infections have been reported”.


Also read: Coronavirus | Trump accuses WHO of being China-centric, threatens to cut funding


Beyond the early warning controversy, the WHO has faced broader criticism for some of its early actions as the outbreak was spreading. On January 14, the WHO repeated that investigations had found no evidence of human-to-human transmissions based on information provided to them by China. It would later, however, emerge that Wuhan authorities had not disclosed to the WHO that medical workers had, by late December, been reported as being infected in some Wuhan hospitals.

Until mid-January, Wuhan authorities publicly announced there was no human-to-human transmission. Wuhan was locked down on January 23. By that time, an estimated five million people had left ahead of an annual holiday.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO as China has opposed its entry into international bodies. Taiwan was the first to begin screening passengers from Wuhan, starting December 31.

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