Coronavirus: US health officials ‘in the dark’ about first WHO China mission

·4-min read

US public health officials were “in the dark” about whether their experts would be included in a WHO coronavirus mission to China early last year, according to newly released emails obtained by US outlet BuzzFeed News.

The disclosure was one of a number from more than 3,000 pages of emails from the inbox of Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the early phase of the pandemic.

While Covid-19 has inflamed political tensions between the United States and China, Fauci’s emails show contact between scientists from the two countries, and US efforts to understand a virus that would later kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

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The emails spanning several months in the first half of last year were obtained by the news outlet in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and released by a BuzzFeed reporter on Tuesday.

According to the correspondence, a US official contacted the World Health Organization for details after reading a news report about an advance team of WHO officials heading to China for a field mission to understand the disease.

The US authorities appeared to not be informed about who from their side would be part of the mission.

“I’m reaching out to get more clarity on the WHO experts team issue,” Garrett Grigsby, director of the department’s office of global affairs, wrote on February 9, a week before the mission began.

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“I haven’t heard any word about US people, and I was just with Dr Redfield late this afternoon and he was in the dark too,” Grigsby wrote, in an apparent reference to Robert Redfield, then director of US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

WHO official Bernhard Schwartländer replied, giving assurances that the organisation had a list of possible names from the US and would keep them informed as details were decided with the Chinese side.

The email exchange, later “passed up the chain” by Grigsby to Fauci, was one of a number reflecting US public health officials’ early efforts to understand the new coronavirus causing a major outbreak in China.

The emails also showed communication between the US and China, both via officials and academics.

In one exchange, from early February, Fauci told the head of a prominent US medical journal that he had spoken “in detail” to the director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and that China was seeing a “low level” of asymptomatic transmission in its outbreak. He noted the conversation was “confidential”.

Months later, after China passed the peak of its outbreak and the US became a coronavirus hot zone, Chinese CDC director Gao Fu wrote to Fauci to express his concern over reports that the US expert had come under attack.

“Hope you are well under such an irrational situation,” Gao wrote on April 8.

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The emails also referred to a request from Columbia University professor and infectious disease expert Ian Lipkin to transport the “live novel coronavirus” from Hong Kong to his high containment laboratory at the university.

A February 13 email from Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, to Fauci and Redfield, said Lipkin obtained approval from a US CDC official to import the virus, but that the university was considering “the risks and benefits” of the proposal.

It was not clear where the virus would come from, although Fried asked whether the virus could be obtained from sources including “China or Hong Kong [health authorities] or University of Hong Kong”.

Lipkin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. HKU also did not respond to a request for comment made after hours.

As China’s outbreak largely came under control in March 2020, cases began to rise steadily in America, where many public health figures have since said not enough was done to prepare.

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But Fauci was taking note of China’s experience, according to the emails.

The WHO mission to China that US officials were earlier “in the dark about” about did get off the ground in February 2020, and included NIAID clinical director Clifford Lane.

After the mission, Fauci read an interview with WHO senior adviser and mission leader Bruce Alyward about China’s response, which was published in The New York Times .

“Best discussion of Covid-19 that I have seen thus far,” Fauci wrote.

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