In its second interim report, the Switzerland-based Independent Commission of Epidemic Preparedness and Response decided that Beijing could have been more robust in implementing public health measures when cases were first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province.
“What is clear to the committee is that public health measures could have been applied more vigorously by local and national health authorities in China in January (2020),” the report said.
The first cases occurred in Wuhan between December 12 and December 29, 2019, according to city authorities. Cases were not reported to the World Health Organization until December 31. By the time Wuhan was locked down on January 23, 2020, the virus had already spread to Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States.
Several countries, mostly the United States and Australia, have accused Beijing of underestimating the severity of the outbreak during its early stages and preventing an effective response until it is too late.
In response, China said it agreed that there was always room for improvement, but closed the notion that this meant the country was doing poorly in relation to the pandemic.
“About this, I want to say that we must definitely try to do a better job. I think any country, including China, the US, the UK, Japan and any other country, should try to do a better job, because I think there is not always there,” the spokeswoman said. On behalf of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, “The best, only the best, when it comes to public health issues.”
“But I think there is another point that needs attention here,” Hua said. The idea that China should do better is not the same as saying it is not doing well, she added, adding that Western media portrayed it this way.
“The former means that we need to constantly reform ourselves, improve ourselves, and constantly improve our ability to govern, with the goal of reaching absolute perfection. I think that is exactly why China continues to develop and make progress. The latter may be somewhat biased,” said Hua.
The independent committee, chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also criticized the World Health Organization for delaying the alarm and called for reforms in the UN agency.
Although cases were alerted by the end of December 2019, the WHO did not hold its emergency session until January 22, 2020 – then it waited until January 30 before declaring an international emergency.
“It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, and it is not clear why it was unable to agree on declaring a public health emergency of international concern when it was convened for the first time,” the report said.
The report stated that “although the term pandemic has not been used or defined in the International Health Regulations (2005), its use focuses attention on the seriousness of the health event.”
It concluded that the World Health Organization “is incapable of carrying out the task expected of it”. The report said that the World Health Organization has “very limited” authority to verify reports of disease outbreaks for possible pandemics, or to deploy support in local areas.
The review committee, which is due to present a final report at the World Health Assembly in May, said the international community needs to achieve “a comprehensive reset” on how it handles pandemics.