Officials from the World Health Organization on Monday pushed back on reports that Taiwan had warned last year that the novel coronavirus was like severe acute respiratory syndrome and could spread from human to human.
The remarks come amid criticism of WHO’s relationship with China, the country where the virus first took hold and which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Last month, Taiwan shared a letter that it had sent to the WHO on Dec. 31 about the then-emerging outbreak in China’s Hubei province.
President Trump and others have suggested that the letter shows WHO downplayed the risks posed by the outbreak, including the potential for human-to-human transmission.
At a briefing on Monday, WHO legal officer Steven Solomon said he wanted to “set the record straight” and argued that Taiwan did not warn the WHO.
“That email was not a warning. It was a request for more information on cases of atypical pneumonia reported by news sources,” Solomon said. “The email asked for more information — more information about news reports that WHO and most public health services already knew about. Others, in fact, sent similar emails that same day.”
The news reports had come from local news sources, as well as Promed, also known as the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, Solomon said. “The reports were therefore already available,” and the WHO was monitoring the outbreak at that point, he said.
Mike Ryan, WHO emergency chief, said it was not accurate that atypical pneumonia would have been an alarming reference in the Dec. 31 email.
“Atypical pneumonia is an extremely common form of pneumonia that occurs around the world, there are millions and millions of cases every year,” Ryan said, adding that it refers to cases of pneumonia that may not be linked to common causes and that it was “entirely incorrect” it would clearly refer to SARS.
“From day one, from all of our experience with respiratory pathogens, from SARS, from [Middle East respiratory syndrome], you operate on the possibility that may be possible,” Maria Van Verkhove, technical lead at the WHO, said of human-to-human transmission.
Solomon praised Taiwan’s response to the pandemic.
“They have had notable successes, and we appreciate their contributions,” he said. However, he said, the country’s participation in the WHO’s governing body, World Health Assembly, and other events was based on the decision of 194 WHO member states, not that of the impartial and neutral WHO.
“This is not something that [the] WHO secretariat has authority to decide,” Solomon said, noting that two nations had already proposed that Taiwan’s participation be considered in the next assembly, set to begin on May 18.