WHO accused of coronavirus cover-up
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been accused of "delaying" its response to the coronavirus outbreak in an attempt to appease China.
By the time the UN agency declared a global health emergency on January 30, the virus had already spread well beyond China.
The WHO says it first heard reports of a previously-unknown virus in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, on December 31 last year.
It's estimated to have started in early December, but local Chinese officials sought to play down the virus so as not to attract the ire of the Chinese Communist Party.
Public health experts suspect that before the meeting on January 23, China tried to downplay the virus and urged the agency not to designate it a "public health emergency of international concern", according to The Times. The WHO has denied influence claims.
Dr John Ashton, one of the UK's leading public health specialists, said the WHO "failed to declare a global public health emergency in a timely way".
It comes as the number of deaths from the coronavirus has skyrocketed to 1527, with over 67,000 infections worldwide.
66,492 of those cases are based in mainland China, with 338 in Japan, 72 in Singapore, 56 in Hong Kong and 15 in Australia.
The agency argues it didn't declare a global emergency earlier because there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China.
China is a key strategic partner of the WHO and its financial backing is important to the agency's future - particularly after the US, its top donor, last week said it wants to cut its contribution by 53 per cent.
The WHO has also faced scrutiny for its praise of China, having hailed the country's "extraordinary" effort to tackle the epidemic.
Economist Defence Editor Shashank Joshi tweeted a photo of the coronavirus panel at the Munich Security Conference, saying the WHO's representative was "absolutely" gushing over China.
Coronoavirus panel at #MSC2020. WHO rep absolutely gushes over China. "The people of China feel protected ... the ultimate social contract. The government of China is honouring that contract with it's people. We all need to take a step back and admire what's happened" 🙄 pic.twitter.com/6buyQCpIbe— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) February 15, 2020
According to Joshi, only one leader at the conference - Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth - was critical of China's response to the virus.
.@KenRoth is the only one to sound a critical note on the Chinese response. "If you read the press there are big problems". WHO rep finally shamed into mentioning "due respect for human rights". But then notes, pointedly, how "some countries" overreacted to terrorism. pic.twitter.com/eq6U7LfAo9— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) February 15, 2020
One adviser to the WHO told The Times: "(The agency) has great difficulty in being openly critical of a member state as its only real power is persuasion.
"I suspect praising China for their response was the best way to keep the Chinese on board."
FIRST CORONAVIRUS DEATH IN EUROPE
Meanwhile, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist infected with the coronavirus has died in France, the first fatality in Europe and the fourth outside mainland China.
The Chinese man died at the Bichat hospital in Paris of a lung infection due to the flu-like virus, authorities said on Saturday.
"We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France," Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said.
British mathematical epidemiology expert Robin Thompson said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising.
"The most important thing to point out, however, is that there still hasn't been sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe," he said.
In China some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country.
Those returning to Beijing from the New Year holiday have been ordered to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.
Many factories are yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains for everyone from smartphone makers to car manufacturers.
World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was impossible to tell where the epidemic will spread.
"We are concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China," Tedros told the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
"We are concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community.
"Most of all, we are concerned about the potential havoc this virus could wreak in countries with weaker health systems."
The biggest cluster outside China has been on cruise ship the Diamond Princess, quarantined off Japan's Yokohama.
Out of about 3700 passengers and crew on board, 285 people have tested positive and been sent to hospital.
The US said on Saturday it plans to send an aircraft to pick up American passengers and take them back home where they face another two weeks of isolation "out of an abundance of caution".
An 83-year-old American woman from the Westerdam cruise ship, which finally docked in Cambodia on Thursday, tested positive for the coronavirus on landing in Malaysia, health authorities there said on Saturday.
US President Donald Trump thanked "beautiful" Cambodia for taking the castaway cruise ship in a rare message to a nation that has often been at odds with Washington.
In Hong Kong, which has seen months of anti-Beijing protests, hundreds marched on Saturday to demand full closure of the border with mainland China and to oppose plans to turn some buildings into quarantine hubs.
The sickness, now officially labelled Covid-19, has killed around two per cent of those infected. Cases have spread faster than other respiratory virus this century.
- with Reuters