FACT CHECK: Did following the World Health Organization’s advice hurt Canada’s COVID-19 response?
Updated: Jun 3, 2020
MISLEADING. The World Health Organization relied on information from China at the beginning of the crisis, leading to delays in its communication about the virus. But it had little choice, given that China was the best source of data on COVID-19 at the time.
On April 14, Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health that, “There is simply no doubt that the WHO has been slow to recommend concrete measures, [which] has negatively affected Canada's response to the virus… In fact, the WHO has gone above and beyond to congratulate and thank China for their response, which has been to mislead the world on the gravity of the virus.”
Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer also questioned the WHO’s data in a televised press conference. “Many concerns have been raised about the accuracy of the World Health Organization’s data, the influence that China has on the World Health Organization,” he said.
A day later, President Donald Trump announced that the US was putting a hold on its funding for the WHO based on similar claims, accusing the organization of having “shown a dangerous bias towards the Chinese government.”
Before jumping into these claims, it’s important to know what the WHO does. The Geneva-based UN agency serves as a central coordinating body to declare global health threats, organize prevention efforts, and provide recommendations. Member countries are meant to notify the WHO about public health risks and share information they have. However, the WHO has no direct authority over member states.
Was the WHO slow to take action?
There was a delay between when China knew that the virus could be transmitted from person to person and when the WHO communicated the threat to the world. But as an agency that depends on member states for information, the WHO was limited by the data China provided to them at the time.
China first notified the WHO about pneumonia cases in Wuhan on December 31, 2019, and the organization published the first news release for the international community on January 4, 2020. Then, China shared the genome sequence for the novel coronavirus on January 12. (See the full WHO timeline here.)
At that point, the WHO did not know if human-to-human transmission was happening. At a press conference on January 14, Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, noted that such transmission had been limited but that an outbreak was possible.
But not all of their communication was this careful. Critics of the WHO point to a tweet from January 14 in which the organization stated there was “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. Without the caveats Kerkhove offered, the WHO appeared to be claiming that there was no transmission between humans (at least, that’s what critics have since taken it to mean).
We now know that China had more information than they were sharing with the WHO at the time. Based on documents received by the Associated Press, Chinese officials were aware that COVID-19 could spread from person to person by January 14, but waited an additional six days before warning the Chinese public. From January 20 to 21, scientists from the WHO conducted a field visit to Wuhan and, a day later, they confirmed that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission.
Despite this new knowledge, the WHO’s Emergency Committee could not reach a consensus on whether the virus constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). If a PHEIC is declared, WHO member states have a legal duty to respond promptly, and the organization has authority to obtain and share information with or without the consent of governments.
It wasn’t until January 30 that the WHO announced that the virus constituted a PHEIC. At that time, the organization did not recommend that member countries enact travel or trade restrictions. Instead, they recommended that the international community support countries with weaker health systems, accelerate vaccine development, share their data, and review preparedness plans.
The WHO took another month to declare COVID-19 a pandemic. While this has been cited as an example of a delay, a pandemic is only a label indicating the severity of the threat and did not change their assessment of the threat.
Did the WHO praise China’s transparency?
Yes. On January 30, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised China's containment efforts as “setting a new standard for outbreak control.”
“We would have seen many more cases outside China by now—and probably deaths—if it were not for the government’s efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world,” he said in a statement. “The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries.”
His statements on China’s response are accurate. The country has been very effective in preventing the spread of the virus, although experts say they started too late.
On transparency, however, China has not performed well. In January, Chinese authorities reprimanded eight doctors for “publishing false information online,” including Li Wenliang, who had told friends on WeChat about a SARS-like pneumonia at his hospital. Li later died after contracting COVID-19.
It is reasonable to have concerns about Chinese influence over the WHO. Under Tedros’s leadership, the WHO has been friendly with China. When he was elected in 2017, he reiterated that the organization is committed to a “One China” policy, which means that Taiwan is not permitted to join as a member. The policy has meant that the WHO does not share information with Taiwan and excludes the country from emergency meetings, despite its success in countering the spread of COVID-19.
It is true that Canada responded later than it could have if the WHO had better information. The federal and provincial governments began closing schools and businesses in early March, and only enforced mandatory quarantine for travellers on March 25.
Earlier travel restrictions may not have helped, though. Canada implemented air travel restrictions on March 18 and closed its shared border with the US to all non-essential travel on March 21, even though WHO guidelines advised against it. Travel restrictions may feel like a tangible effort to prevent the spread of a virus, but they can actually limit the ability to get aid to affected areas and may only delay an outbreak by a few weeks.
The WHO provides a wealth of information and technical guidance on countering the disease, and it remains a high-quality source for up-to-date health advice. As an international agency reliant on member states for information, it has limitations—and some of them have been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. However, none of these problems mean that Canada should not take their advice into account, or that abiding by their recommendations has hurt Canada’s response more than it has helped.