WHO and China: a healthy relationship?

Geneva, Switzerland: The World Health Organization's relationship with China has been under the spotlight since day one of the pandemics -- and faces even more intense scrutiny after the Covid-19 origins report became public on Monday.

Critics believe Beijing has given the WHO the runaround throughout the crisis, and suggest China has been less than forthcoming with data that could help solve the mystery behind the global crisis.

Soon after the first Covid-19 cases were recorded in Wuhan in December 2019, the UN health agency started facing accusations of being too soft with Beijing.

The WHO has a delicate balancing act to perform. It needs the cooperation of the host country before launching an investigation.

It took more than a year for a team of international experts assembled by the WHO to make it to Wuhan, starting their origins probe in the Chinese city in January 2021.

While some question how open China has been with crucial data on the initial outbreak, others insist the investigation was a harmonious joint effort, reliant on cooperation between the WHO and Beijing.

'Institutional complicity'

Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth said the WHO was guilty of "institutional complicity" when it gave credence to some of Beijing's early claims about the outbreak.

"WHO has absolutely refused as an institution to say anything critical about China's cover-up of human-to-human transmission, or its ongoing refusal to provide the basic evidence," he told reporters last month.

"What we need is an honest, vigorous inquiry rather than further deference to China's cover-up efforts."

One diplomatic observer in Geneva said the WHO had let China do the preliminary investigative work on its own, and then control the terms of the investigation -- while some member states, who criticized the situation in private, steered away from public criticism.

Former US President Donald Trump famously slammed the WHO over its relationship with Beijing.

He accused the WHO of being a "puppet of China" and even covering up the initial outbreak of the virus.

He began the 12-month process of withdrawing from the organization last July -- a policy immediately reversed by his successor Joe Biden in January.

Smooth co-operator

However, the new administration remains skeptical of how transparent Beijing has been with the WHO.

Mark Cassayre, the top US diplomat in Geneva, said Wednesday that Washington was "dismayed" by the long delay in getting the investigation team to China.

Whether the experts were able to conduct their investigation "in a transparent and unhindered manner... remains to be seen", Cassayre said.

"That's going to be the barometer by which we can judge that relationship" between the WHO and China, he added.

Trump's retreat from the WHO means Washington is now trying to reassert its influence in the space he abandoned -- which some saw as an open invitation for China to step into.

Washington carried clout as the WHO's biggest donor. While the United States contributed $853 million in 2018-19, China put in $89 million. The financial gap was one of Trump's key grievances.

Biden's administration has now pledged $4 billion to the Covax Covid-19 vaccine facility, ensuring poorer nations can access doses.

Chen Xu, China's ambassador in Geneva, said Trump's puppet accusations about Beijing and the WHO were "groundless".

"Co-operation between China and the WHO... has been in a very good pattern over the years," he said, calling relations over the pandemic "smooth and comprehensive".

David Heymann, who chairs the WHO Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards, praised Chinese cooperation.

The information "freely provided by China" to the group early in the pandemic "provided a rapid understanding of transmission", he told AFP.

When asked for information, "it was provided within a short period of time", he said.

Question of leverage

But Walter Stevens, the European Union's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said Beijing, feeling "under pressure", was not necessarily smoothing the path to answers.

"They make... life not always easy," the Belgian diplomat said.

But Stevens suggested the problem was more one of the WHO's leverage rather than China's attitude.

He added: "I don't fully agree... that China is taking over WHO".

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a rare public rebuke of Beijing on January 5, when the incoming origins investigators -- some of whom were mid-flight -- were briefly denied entry permission.

Some critics feel the tortuous path to the origins report has cost the WHO credibility.

However, Wuhan mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said it would have been difficult to go to China much earlier -- and the preparatory material worked on by Chinese scientists would not have been ready.

One of the team members has suggested making such investigations automatic after an outbreak, to take the controversy and delicacy out of the situation.

"If we want to move beyond this sensitivity, let's just make it routine, standard," said Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans.

Ten key moments in WHO's Covid-19 response

Here are 10 key moments in the World Health Organization's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, since the first signs were detected in China:

First alert

The WHO office in China picks up a media statement referring to cases of "viral pneumonia" on the website of the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 31, 2019.

WHO's epidemic intelligence service sees a media report on the international epidemic watch system ProMED about the same cluster of cases of "pneumonia of unknown cause" in Wuhan.

Human-to-human transmission signs

WHO says there is evidence of the virus passing between people on January 21, 2020.

"It is now very clear from the latest information that there is at least some human-to-human transmission," its Western Pacific branch writes on Twitter following a field mission to Wuhan.

The WHO says the next day that more analysis is needed to understand the "full extent of human-to-human transmission".

Emergency declared

WHO declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, sounding its highest alert.

No deaths have yet been confirmed outside China, but there were 82 confirmed cases in 18 other countries.

Disease named Covid-19

WHO names the new disease Covid-19 on February 11.

WHO had earlier called it "2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease" while China used the name "novel coronavirus pneumonia".

Pandemic arrives

WHO describes Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11 with more than 100 countries reporting cases.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns of the "alarming levels of spread and severity" and "alarming levels of inaction".

ACT-Accelerator launch

Tedros co-launches the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator to speed up work on vaccines and treatments on April 24.

Facemasks recommendation

WHO changes its advice to recommend facemasks where virus transmission is widespread and physical distancing difficult on June 5.

More than two months later, the WHO says children aged 12 and over should follow the same mask guidelines as adults.

Airborne transmission

WHO points to "emerging evidence" that the virus might spread by air further than previously thought on July 7.

First vaccine approved

The WHO gives emergency use listing to the first vaccine, from Pfizer-BioNTech, on December 31.

AstraZeneca Covid-19 jabs got WHO approval on February 15, 2021, and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine on March 12.

Origins investigation

A joint report from a team of international experts and Chinese scientists, into the origins of Covid-19, becomes public on March 29, 2021.

The team, which spent four weeks in Wuhan in early 2021, claim in their report that it is "likely to very likely" that Covid-19 reached humans through an intermediary animal, while all but ruling out a laboratory leak incident.

What is a ferret badger?

A number of animals have been suggested as the intermediary carrier of the coronavirus that has wracked the world for more than a year; most of them are familiar, but you might not have heard of the ferret badger. Here are some facts about this lesser-known creature.

What's in a name?

The ferret badger's name is actually fairly self-explanatory.

It's a member of the Mustelidae, the family of mammals that includes weasels, badgers, ferrets, otters, martens, minks, and wolverines.

Visually it looks very much like a cross between a ferret and a badger.

With an average length of 33 to 43 centimeters, its small size and thin shape is reminiscent of a ferret.

But they also have white facial markings and a stripe down their back, traits seen in many badger species.

The ferret badger looks quite similar to the palm civet cat which -- while not a Mustelidae -- was identified as the intermediate host between bats and humans for the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Where would you find it?

The ferret badger has five identified subspecies, the Bornean, the Chinese, the Javan, the Burmese, and the recently classified Vietnamese.

Chinese ferret badgers -- melogale moschata -- are the most widespread and can be found as far west as Assam in India, throughout southern China, and as far east as Taiwan.

It has a diverse stomping ground and is found in tropical and subtropical forests as well as grasslands.

What's it like? 

It is most active at dusk and during the night, eating an omnivorous diet of seeds, fruits and nuts as well as insects, earthworms, and small amphibians.

It has sharp claws allowing it to climb -- and sleep -- in trees.

It also fiercely defends itself from threats, emitting a powerful smelling secretion from its anal glands when alarmed.

Is it endangered?

No, it is currently listed in the "least concern" category on the UN's Red List.

While it is sometimes hunted for its pelt, the ferret badger does not appear to be under any major population pressure.

Unlike many species, it may cope quite well with human encroachment onto its habitat.

A study of ferret badgers in the mid-1990s near a village in southeastern China found the animals often made use of firewood stacks and rock piles to rest and hunted for food in rice paddies, soybean, cotton, or grass fields.

Farmers usually liked the animals as they got rid of pests and did not tend to attack chickens or livestock.

Share this story