Coronavirus, Wuhan
A nurse is seen in front of a window at a hospital in Wuhan. Local cadres reassured people of no infectious disease when mysterious pneumonia started to spread among people at the end of 2019. Photo: AFP

The Taiwanese government has said it sounded the alarm at the end of last year about possible human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus when it first started to strike people down in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Yet its warning went unheeded by the World Health Organization (WHO), of which the island is not a member due to disputes over its statehood.

The self-governing island’s officials have confirmed a previous report by the Financial Times claiming the WHO failed to pass on Taiwan’s warning about the contagious pathogen Covid-19 at the end of December. The warning was issued after cadres in Wuhan vehemently repudiated claims that a mysterious form of pneumonia was spreading among the city’s residents. They decreed that New Year celebrations and annual municipal conferences would proceed as scheduled.

Quoting several Taiwanese officials, including Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist-turned-politician, the British broadsheet alleged that despite Taiwan’s concerns, the WHO failed to act.

Taiwan’s health and foreign affairs officials said at a press conference earlier this week that the island had learned about an emerging atypical respiratory disease in Wuhan from Taiwanese expats there in December. Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control then tried to seek clarification and more information from its Chinese counterpart as well as the WHO’s International Health Regulations framework on December 31. Taiwan’s representative office in Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered, also tried to contact the secretariat of the United Nations agency on health.

The only response that Taiwan received from the WHO, according to the Central News Agency, was an email saying that the inquiry would be relayed to the organization’s experts but would not be posted on the organization’s internal website for the benefit of member countries.

A map illustrates the distribution of Taiwan’s confirmed cases. The island has a total of 267 cases as of Friday, fewer than the soaring number of patients in other Asian countries. Photo: CNA

Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) said it had email correspondence with the WHO to substantiate its claim about the latter’s inaction. China’s officials did not reply to Taiwan’s request for more information.

CDC Director-General Chou Jih-haw added that the center sent separate emails to China and the WHO on December 31 expressing Taiwan’s concerns about the virus and how it is transmitted.

“While the WHO’s IHR internal website provides a platform for all countries to share information on epidemics and their response, none of the information shared by our country’s CDC was put up there,” the Financial Times quoted Taiwan’s vice-president as saying.

Taiwan’s Vice-President Chen Chien-jen told the Financial Times that the island had tried to seek information from China and the WHO regarding the new virus in Wuhan at the end of 2019. Photo: Handout

The report blamed the WHO’s relationship with Beijing for its decision to refuse to share Taiwan’s alert over the human-to-human transmission of Covid-19.

Though the WHO chose not to publish Taiwan’s warnings, the island still took precautions itself based on the information it was able to collect from Wuhan, including screening passengers arriving from the city at airports in Taipei and Kaohsiung and setting up an emergency response center. And the island even managed to dispatch a team to the central Chinese city to learn more about the situation, despite China’s initial recalcitrance.

Meanwhile, when asked by reporters to verify the island’s claim, US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus confirmed that Taiwan alerted the WHO.

“Dec. 31 — that’s the same day Taiwan first tried to warn WHO of human-human transmission,” Ortagus also tweeted. “Chinese authorities meanwhile silenced doctors and refused to admit such transmission until Jan. 20, with catastrophic consequences.”

Her tweet was in response to a post by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, who wrote on Twitter, which is inaccessible to ordinary Chinese netizens without a VPN, that the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had indeed issued a warning about the virus on December 31. Yet what Hua did not mention was the fact that Wuhan officials at that time assured people there that “no obvious transmission among people was observed.”

There is a war of wards underway between the spokeswomen of the Chinese and US foreign ministries over the Wuhan virus and Taiwan’s alert. Photos: Twitter

Also, Taiwan is now accusing China of preventing the island from procuring materials for making antimalarial drugs that could potentially be used to combat Covid-19.

Health officials there said quinoline antimalarial drugs could potentially be used to treat Covid-19, after a recent small-scale study found that one drug in the quinoline family – hydroxychloroquine – had successfully reduced the concentration of the coronavirus in the systems of patients suffering no symptoms or just mild ones. They said there was one manufacturer of such drugs in Taiwan, but production could not be ramped up for further trials due to China’s ban on the export of drug materials imposed this year. China has announced restrictions on the export of certain drugs to ensure it maintains its domestic supply amid the public health crisis.

China has been using its sway over the WHO to block Taiwan’s bid to join the UN agency, saying only sovereign states can be members. Photo: AFP

In a separate development, Chinese state media reported on Friday that President Xi Jinping replied to a letter from WHO chief Tedros Adhanom in which he praised the latter’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus. “Your work has won widespread recognition in the international community,” wrote Xi.

Adhanom hailed Xi’s “top-flight leadership” and China’s extraordinary campaign to combat the pandemic and thanked China for its funding of the WHO.

Adhanom and the WHO have been excoriated by some countries and even health experts within the international body for being too pliant in their dealings with China in terms of information-sharing issues, as well as for succumbing to China’s pressure to exclude Taiwan.

The WHO has not yet decided whether it will convene the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly in May, and options include turning the annual meeting into a virtual one via video or postponing it until autumn.

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