(CN) — Pushing back against President Donald Trump, the World Health Organization said on Friday it gave the world ample time to contain the novel coronavirus, which it said was “natural in origin.”
The WHO is under attack from Trump, who alleges the health agency run by the United Nations helped China cover up the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan.
China is coming under fire because it allegedly silenced doctors who were warning about a mysterious number of pneumonia cases in December, hid the severity of the outbreak and allowed so-called wet markets to remain open despite their risks. Exotic animals are sold at such markets and scientists say the coronavirus may have emerged at a wet market in Wuhan.
Last month, Trump froze funding to the agency, sparking anger even among U.S. allies. The U.S. has been the WHO’s biggest contributor. Critics accuse Trump of seeking to divert attention from his failings in handling the outbreak in the U.S. by attacking China and the WHO.
In the United States, more than 64,500 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and more than 1 million cases have been detected, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Trump also alleges the virus escaped by mistake from a virology laboratory in Wuhan. The American president has not provided evidence to back up his claims, but he has ordered U.S. intelligence services to investigate.
Since the coronavirus emerged in January, the WHO has been holding regular briefings. Every week, it takes questions from reporters around the world and it has become customary for American journalists to ask the agency to respond to the latest broadsides by Trump.
That was again the case on Friday. This week, American media reported claims from Trump administration officials that a worker at the Wuhan laboratory became infected with the virus and then transferred it to others.
When asked if the agency was investigating the possibility that that virus had escaped the laboratory, Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, said scientists were certain the virus was not manufactured. He did not specify whether the agency was considering the possibility of its accidental release from the lab.
“With regard to the origin of the virus in Wuhan, we have listened again and again to numerous scientists who have looked at the [genetic] sequences” of the virus, Ryan said. “We are assured that this virus is natural in origin.”
He said the agency is keenly interested in knowing how the virus may have passed from an animal to humans. Scientists believe this novel coronavirus may have originated in a bat and infected humans through a different host species.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, has defended his agency’s actions and argued it gave the world plenty of time to stop the spread of the virus. He made that argument again on Friday when pressed by reporters.
On Dec. 31, China alerted the WHO about the outbreak. Initially, China said there was no evidence the virus was being transmitted between humans but by Jan. 20 its scientists reversed that conclusion.
On Jan. 22 and 23, the WHO’s emergency committee met to discuss the risk from the virus. The committee is made up of experts from around the world, including from the U.S.
The emergency committee was divided on whether the WHO should declare the outbreak a global health emergency, its highest alert. At that time, only a handful of confirmed cases of the virus had been found outside of China.
Tedros said the committee wanted more scientific information before declaring the outbreak in Wuhan a global emergency. He said he and other WHO staff traveled to China to see firsthand what was happening in Wuhan.
“I remember then people advised us not to travel to China” because of the risk of infection, Tedros said. “No, we said, ‘We’ll go.’”
“We need to be on the ground to see for ourselves,” the director-general added. “No time was wasted.”
The WHO’s emergency committee met again on Jan. 30 and decided to issue a global health alert. By that time, there were 82 confirmed coronavirus cases outside of China but no deaths outside China linked to the virus.
By that time in China, officials said about 170 people had died from the disease caused by the virus and that more than 7,800 people had become infected. In the U.S., six cases had been found.
“I think to declare a public health emergency in that situation says it all,” Tedros said, referring to the small number of cases outside China. “The world had enough time to intervene.”
The WHO called the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, a day after Italy announced a nationwide lockdown after the virus was found spreading at alarming levels in northern Italy. Since then, the pandemic has overwhelmed the globe, bringing the world to a standstill and causing massive economic damage. About 240,000 deaths have been linked to the virus and more than 3.3 million cases have been found worldwide.
The WHO’s emergency committee was reconvened on Thursday, three months after it last met to discuss the outbreak.
The committee’s chairman, French pandemic specialist Dr. Didier Houssin, said the WHO took the right steps.
“I think WHO decided in a timely manner,” he said.
He noted the agency was criticized for moving too quickly to declare the 2009 H1NI influenza outbreak a pandemic and for taking too long to declare the Ebola virus a global health emergency in 2014.
He cited confidentiality agreements in not disclosing which experts on the committee initially opposed calling the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency when it first met on Jan. 22-23.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.