An infamous WHO tweet saying there was 'no clear evidence' COVID-19 could spread between humans was posted for 'balance' to reflect findings from China

kcorcoran@businessinsider.com (Kieran Corcoran)
Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a toast at an event in Beijing, May 14, 2017.

Reuters

  • On January 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted that there was "no clear evidence" that the coronavirus could spread between people.
  • The tweet — soon proved wrong — is a symbol for WHO critics of how it mishandled and downplayed the pandemic.
  • A new report by the Guardian says that the tweet was posted because an official worried that a WHO expert was issuing strong warnings that deviated from China's messaging.
  • A WHO source told Business Insider the message was posted to "balance the science out," rather than for political reasons.
  • The WHO has been accused of being too deferential to China. President Donald Trump echoed the criticism when he announced that the US would halt its funding.
  • Visit Business Insider's home page for more stories.

A WHO tweet downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus was posted by a mid-ranking official who was concerned that warnings about the virus were getting ahead of findings from China, according to a report by the Guardian.

The message was posted on January 14, and said there was "no clear evidence" that the coronavirus beginning to sweep Wuhan, China, was capable of spreading directly between humans.

In the days that followed the tweet, it became clear that human-to-human transmission was indeed possible.

The message has been cited in dozens of articles dissecting the WHO's early response to the pandemic, and is widely quoted on social media as an example of advice that is unambiguously wrong in hindsight.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a virtual news briefing on COVID-19 from WHO headquarters in Geneva on April 6, 2020.

AFP via Getty Images

It emerged this week that by January 14, officials in China already knew that the virus could spread between people — and would likely become a pandemic. They waited for a further six days before making that information public.

However, even without that information, some in the WHO were highlighting the danger of a rapid spread.

They include the US expert Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who on January 14 warned that "we need to prepare ourselves" for the possibility of mass human transmission.

And, according to a new report by Julian Borger of the Guardian, it was internal WHO discomfort with these warnings that prompted the "no clear transmission" tweet.

Borger wrote:

"[The tweet] was issued on the same day the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove (a US immunologist) gave a press briefing in Geneva warning of precisely the opposite — the potential for rapid spread.

"Concerned that her briefing conflicted with the initial Chinese findings, a middle-ranking official told the social media team to put out a tweet to balance the Van Kerkhove briefing."

The article goes on to note that the tweet "does not appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy" to appease China.

A source at the WHO, who requested anonymity to speak freely, gave Business Insider a similar impression of the events leading to the tweets.

The source said that the message was a reaction to some media outlets reporting Van Kerkhove's remarks as premature confirmation that the disease could spread between people.

As a result, "a well-meaning colleague felt we also needed a tweet to balance the science out until we had greater confirmation."

The source denied that the message was sent for political reasons. Describing the atmosphere inside the WHO, he said: "We're not weighing everything on the political implications because, frankly, we usually don't know what the politics are."

Critics of the WHO, however, have noted a broader pattern of deference to China.

Emily Ruahala of The Washington Post this week reported comments by public health experts, as well as lawmakers in Germany and Japan, criticizing the WHO's closeness to China.

The most extreme criticism has come from President Donald Trump, who called the WHO "very China-centric" in a coronavirus news conference and said he would halt US funding to the body, worth some $400 million per year.

Business Insider has contacted the WHO for comment.

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