It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
China is a big funder of the WHO and its favoured candidate for director general in 2017 was Dr Tedros, an Ethiopian politician with Marxist roots and long-standing ties to China. In 2019, the WHO endorsed Traditional Chinese Medicine, the belief that (among other things) eating powdered pangolin scales – made of the same material as fingernails – is a miraculous cure for cancer and impotence. Such claims are leading to the trafficking and near extinction of several pangolin species.
As an instance of Chinese influence, consider that on 28 March last year, a WHO executive, Bruce Aylward, thrice failed to answer a journalist’s question about Taiwan’s efficient response to the virus: first claiming not to have heard the question, then apparently cutting off the connection, and then, when it was restored, responding “Well, we've already talked about China.” Taiwan is excluded from the WHO on Chinese insistence.
The World Health Organisation’s defenders point out that it is powerless to act without the agreement of member countries, but such appeasement is not inevitable. In 2003, under the leadership of Gro Harlem Brundtland, rather than praising China, the WHO lambasted it for failing to alert the world promptly to Sars. In 2014 the WHO commissioned a critical report about its own manifest failings at the start of the ebola epidemic in west Africa, when, in order not to offend host countries, it insisted all was well long after medical charities were raising the alarm. The report identified a “failure to see that conditions for explosive spread were present right at the start” of the outbreak.
At the time WHO’s director general was obsessed with a campaign against vaping despite evidence that it was saving lives by helping people to quit smoking. The next year WHO issued a statement that the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century was climate change. At the very least this pattern suggested an organisation not focused on its day job – which is to prevent and halt epidemics. Startlingly, in 2017, the Washington Post discovered that the WHO routinely spent $200m a year on its travel budget, more than it spent on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
The most embarrassing fiasco for the WHO came on 9 February this year when its team of scientific experts, with terms of reference that China had taken six months to agree to, held a press conference in Wuhan to announce the results of a superficial two-week investigation into the origin of the virus. The event turned into a 2-hour Chinese propaganda exercise, entertaining the implausible and evidence-free suggestion that Covid was imported on frozen fish or meat while ruling out even investigating the possibility that it might have leaked from the world’s leading bat coronavirus laboratory, which happens to be in Wuhan.
Afterwards, members of the WHO team backtracked, saying they were still open-minded about the laboratory, that they had only gone along with the frozen-fish theory “to respect, a bit, the findings” of their Chinese colleagues and that the visit had not been an “investigation” after all. But the damage had been done. “I don't think the press conference was a PR win for China,” muttered their spokesman, forlornly.
It emerged last week that the team had not even asked to see the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s online database, locked since September 2019 and taken down altogether in the spring of 2020. That database is known to contain 22,000 samples, mostly of viruses, 16,000 of them from bats. These include eight viruses very closely related to the virus causing the pandemic but whose genome sequences have not been published. They were collected in 2015 from a disused mineshaft, a thousand miles away, where in 2012 six men fell ill with a disease very like Covid.
Had a western city with a big virus laboratory been the site of origin of a pandemic that killed nearly three million people, it would never be allowed – by the WHO or anybody else – to get away with denying access to such vital resources. The WHO has wasted a year failing to investigate the origin of the virus properly, which has reduced the chances that we will ever know how this pandemic began and therefore increased the probability of another one.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.