Taiwan reveals email, blasts WHO for possible 'dereliction of duty'

04/11/2020 03:19 PM
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Photo courtesy of the CECC
Photo courtesy of the CECC

Taipei, April 11 (CNA) Following the World Health Organization's (WHO's) rejection of Taiwan's claims that it had warned the global health body that the novel coronavirus may be transmitted from human to human, Taiwan's government on Saturday revealed the contents of the disputed Dec. 31 email, blasting the WHO for possible "dereliction of duty." 

Faced with repeated requests by reporters to see the email, Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) held up a placard printout of the contents of Taiwan's email to the WHO at a regular news briefing on Saturday. It read:

"News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, CHINA. Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not SARS; however the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment. I would greatly appreciate it if you have relevant information to share with us. Thank you very much in advance for your attention to this matter."

Chen, who is also head of Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), argued that while Taiwan's Centers for Disease Control did not actually mention "human-to-human" transmissions in the email, it had "strongly hinted" at the possibility.

He said the letter clearly indicated that health authorities in China confirmed seven patients with atypical pneumonia had been isolated for treatment.

"If being isolated for treatment is not a warning, what situation will constitute a warning?" Chen said.

Chen also asked whether China, as a WHO member, informed the world health body of the seven cases.

If the Chinese did not notify the WHO, "what else would be called a cover up?" he asked. "If (the Chinese) did report it, what else would be deemed a dereliction of duty (on the part of the WHO)?"

In repeated statements to international and local media, as well as at news conferences, Taiwan's officials, including from the health and foreign ministry, had said it warned WHO of the possibility of human-to-human transmission in the email it sent to the WHO on Dec. 31, when the COVID-19 outbreak first came to public knowledge.

On Friday, international media, including the Agence France-Presse, a news agency based in Paris, reported that the WHO denied Taiwan's claim that it mentioned the possibility of human-to-human transmission in its email.

Responding to this, Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) spokesman Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥) accused the WHO of "garbling the email content" in a phone interview with CNA Friday night.

Chuang said Taiwan learned about the emergence of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019, which was later known as COVID-19, and immediately alerted the WHO and the Chinese side through email, requesting them to verify.

Atypical pneumonia is what China commonly referred to as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Chuang said, stressing that the disease itself, also caused by coronavirus, is transmittable from human to human.

Although Taiwan did not "directly" point out the possibility for human-to-human transmission in that email due to confused information at that time, its email "strongly hinted" of such a scenario based on the characteristics of SARS and observations that patients in China were isolated, Chuang said.

In a press conference held on March 24, CECC officials claimed that the WHO failed to pass on its warning in the Dec. 31 email about a possible human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus to other countries.

Taiwan's claims of its early warning has led to a diplomatic row between the United States and China, and fueled Washington's criticism of the WHO.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus supported Taiwan's claim in a recent Twitter post and blamed Chinese authorities' refusal to admit human-human transmission until Jan. 20 for the "catastrophic consequences" of COVID-19.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman and other Chinese spokespersons have rejected such claims, arguing that China had taken effective and strong measures to contain the spread of the virus, including locking down the entire Hubei province of 58 million people, where the outbreak was first discovered.

The WHO's website states that on Dec. 31, WHO's China office was informed of several cases of unknown pneumonia, and by Jan. 3, Chinese authorities had informed the WHO of 44 cases: https://www.who.int/csr/don/05-january-2020-pneumonia-of-unkown-cause-china/en/

U.S. officials and others have also criticized the WHO for saying there was only limited human-to-human transmission as late as Jan. 14 and not announcing the virus could be transmitted from person to person until 10 days later.

The WHO, however, has argued that it actively dealt with the outbreak, getting information from China and seeking details on its own, while also passing on findings to the global community.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)reiterated on Saturday that Taiwan's tightening of virus preventive measures, including the screening on airline passengers from China right after the email was sent, was indeed implemented based on the assessment that the emerging disease was transmittable between humans.

The MOFA reiterated that Taiwan, as a member of the international community, has the ability and the willingness to cooperate with international partners in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus and to contribute to the health and welfare of all mankind.

The U.S., Taiwan and the WHO, including its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have been locked in a word war on the accountability of the spread of the coronavirus and Taiwan's participation in the WHO.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO because of China's objections and it lost its observer status in the WHO's World Health Assembly in the past few years due to tense relations between the current administration and Beijing.

Taiwanese officials have argued that its exclusion means it cannot easily obtain information from or share its expertise with the WHO about disease outbreaks or other health issues.

(By Chang Ming-hsuan and Emerson Lim)

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