AP report raises concerns about China and WHO; China denies

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FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2020, file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus. It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus immediately and said its work and commitment to transparency were very impressive, and beyond words. But behind the scenes, there were significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over the lack of outbreak data, The Associated Press has found. (Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP, File)

At least two U.S. senators said Wednesday that China hid data from the World Health Organization that could have altered the course of the coronavirus outbreak, even as a Chinese official denied delays in sharing information and said the government acted openly and transparently.

They were referring to an Associated Press investigation published this week that found China stalled on providing critical coronavirus information to WHO, which expressed considerable frustration in private even as it praised the country in public. Politicians said the report raised key questions, and public health experts said it shed light on a story that has become highly politicized.

At a press briefing on Wednesday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the AP report “seriously inconsistent with the facts.” He read off a timeline of events that did not contradict the AP’s findings and added that China had always maintained “close and good communication and cooperation with WHO.”

WHO officials refused to answer repeated questions Wednesday from international journalists about the AP report, but they did not question its accuracy.

Ami Bera, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that focuses on Asia, acknowledged that WHO was imperfect and said the U.N. health agency should stand up more forcefully to powerful countries like China.

“I do think the WHO has to be very careful in not being so conciliatory to China,” he said.

Senator Rick Scott said that instead of exposing China's failure to share information, WHO officials praised the country's response to the coronavirus.

The AP found significant delays by China in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak that compromised the WHO’s understanding of how the disease was spreading, according to internal recordings of WHO meetings, documents and interviews. The AP uncovered evidence that China sat on releasing the genome of the virus for more than a week after three government labs had fully decoded it.