Emails raise questions about China’s sway over first WHO mission on COVID-19

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A WHO mission to China led by Bruce Aylward offered the world a first glimpse at COVID-19, but the picture may have been distorted by politics. (Photo credit: WHO)

An early World Health Organization report about the COVID-19 pandemic was influenced by political considerations in China, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

A World Health Organization mission of 13 international experts and 12 Chinese experts ⁠— led by Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor at the World Health Organization, and Wannian Liang, an epidemiologist representing the People’s Republic of China ⁠— was influential to the globe’s understanding of the novel coronavirus. The report was prepared in Feb. 2020, when the rest of the world knew little about SARS-CoV-2.

The new emails follow reports that Chinese authorities exerted tight control over a second WHO mission in January 2021. Liang served on both missions. 

China insisted that the WHO’s first mission meet China’s need for an admiring assessment of its COVID-19 response and plans. 

“In an excellent and encouraging discussion with Liang on the train we agreed that the best way to ensure we meet China’s need for a strong assessment of its response and where it plans to go next, would be to add [REDACTED],” Aylward wrote

The report is a glowing paean of China’s mitigation measures and its data sharing. 

“In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” the report’s number one takeaway reads.

Aylward’s email suggests this section – the report’s “major conclusions” – may have been added to “accommodate” the Chinese scientists.

Other international members of the mission recommended that Aylward “dial it back a bit for a public audience and at least hint at shortcomings.”

Alyward may have anticipated pushback on the laudatory section, saying “it is the opinions of the Internationals that matter most here.”

Aylward, who remains a senior advisor to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, did not respond to a request for comment.

The email also suggests that Wang Bin, deputy director general of China’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the National Health Commission, sought to nix certain recommendations in a section dedicated to the public, but they are not specified. 

In communications with the CDC, Aylward and mission member and infectious-diseases physician at the National University Hospital in Singapore Dale Fisher were “highly complementary” and “did not question the data coming from China,” Director of the CDC’s Global Disease Detection Operations Center Ray Arthur told colleagues. 

Some concerns about China’s response or data were flagged to CDC by Aylward and Fisher, but the nature of those concerns are redacted. 

They were not discussed publicly by Aylward at the press conference that followed the report’s release, during which Aylward repeatedly applauded China’s response to the pandemic.

“It’s the opinion of the joint mission, after looking at it very closely and in different ways, that there is no question that China’s bold approach to the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of what was a rapidly escalating and continues to be deadly epidemic,” Aylward said

The pressure to appease Chinese authorities may have impacted the mission’s report in other ways.

For example, Aylward refused to sign his name to the report unless references to “SARS-CoV-2” were removed.

“Definitely do not use SARS-COV2 – I’m not signing anything with that in it,” Aylward wrote. “I’m not going to be part of that mess.”

Aylward said that his concerns surrounded the “deep history of this country with SARS.”

SARS-CoV-2, the now widely accepted name for the virus that causes COVID-19, was initially resisted by Chinese virologists and the WHO because it tied COVID-19 to the 2003 SARS outbreak and therefore to China.

Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher Shi Zhengli appealed to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses for the virus to be renamed to something like TARS-CoV or HARS-CoV, U.S. Right to Know reported last year.

Premature conclusions

Other key details that could shed a light on the impact of China’s influence are redacted.

But it is clear that some of the report’s takeaways were premature. The report concluded that the pandemic had a zoonotic origin, stating it in at least three places. 

WHO Chief Dr. Tedros indicated in a recent interview with U.S. Right to Know that he considers both a natural spillover and a lab accident to be possible scenarios. 

“COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus,” the Feb. 2020 report states. “The intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. However, three important areas of work are already underway in China to inform our understanding of the zoonotic origin of this outbreak,” namely sampling at the city’s wet market and an investigation into the species sold there.

The report states that “early cases identified in Wuhan are believed to be have [sic] acquired infection from a zoonotic source as many reported visiting or working in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.”

“Wet markets were closed, and efforts were made to identify the zoonotic source,” the report states a third time.

One of the “knowledge gaps” identified by the WHO mission was the “animal original source and natural reservoir” of the virus. 

The report does not mention a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or China CDC lab in Wuhan as a possible origin of Covid-19.

“It seems quite clear that China exerted some influence over the WHO-China joint mission. It certainly has handicapped WHO in its investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

China’s eagerness to suppress questions about Wuhan labs as a possible origin of SARS-CoV-2 has been previously reported.

For example, second WHO mission to China in January 2021 concluded that the lab accident hypothesis was an “extremely unlikely pathway.” WHO mission head Peter Ben Embarek later said that language was the result of a compromise with Chinese experts, who initially pushed to exclude any mention of a lab accident from the report altogether. The White House expressed “deep concerns” about China strong-arming its work.

The Feb. 2020 mission report was circulated with CDC experts responding to the rapidly unfolding pandemic in the U.S., another email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows. 

The report was shared with dozens of U.S. CDC offices and employees – including Global Disease Detection Operations Center, the head of the division of high consequence pathogens and pathology, the head of the division of global health protection, and leaders of the agency’s COVID-19 response in Rwanda, South Sudan, the Congo and Uganda. 

The report was produced over a 9-day period from February 16 to February 24, 2020. The team visited Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangdong, Chengdu and Sichuan. “Select team members only” visited Wuhan for two days.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails reported on in this article from a Freedom of Information Act submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and risky research funded with taxpayer dollars.

Written by Emily Kopp