Debunked: The WHO did not take the Taiwan CDC seriously


Senior Member.
There are various issues surrounding the World Health Organization (WHO) and Taiwan, owing to the fact that Taiwan is not a United Nations (UN) member, and is not officially recognized by the WHO, which is a UN agency. The WHO was prepared to address this issue in its May 4th press briefing in Geneva, as they had Mr Steve Solomon, WHO Principal Legal Officer, on the panel that day. (Emphasis mine.)


SA Okay. My question is for Dr Tedros. On December 31st 2019 the Taiwan Centre for Disease Control sent an email to the World Health Organization informing WHO of its understanding of the disease and requesting more information. In that email they used the words atypical pneumonia, which they claim are words commonly used to refer to SARS, a disease transmitted between humans.
Why did WHO not take Taiwan CDC's observation seriously, is my question.
TJ Thank you, Savio. I think Mr Solomon will take this one.
MR I may follow up.
SS Thank you, Tarik, and thanks very much for the question. It's appreciated because it gives us an opportunity to set the record straight, which I'd like to do right away and then I'd also like to address questions of their participation at WHO meetings because these questions continue to come up as well.
Did Taiwan warn WHO on 31st December 2019? The answer is no, they didn't. They did send an email but that email was not a warning. It was a request for more information on cases of atypical pneumonia reported by news sources. They sent that request through the IHR system that Taiwan, China and all IHR focal points are part of.
The email asked for more information about news reports that WHO and most public health services already knew about. Others in fact sent similar emails that day also asking for more information. These reports about atypical pneumonia cases came from Wuhan itself on the internet and they came through a website run by ProMED. That's an acronym for Programme for Monitoring Emerging Diseases.
The reports were therefore already available and the Taiwanese email just requested in very kind terms more information. Why then has this story of warning continued to circulate?
The answer to that is in part because of the rules for the IHR system itself; that is the electronic communication system supporting the International Health Regulations and its focal points from around the world. These focal points around the world are the direct channel to WHO for information about disease outbreaks.
The communications are confidential in order to promote openness within the IHR system so until Taiwan CDC indicated that they didn't expect confidentiality about that email we couldn't offer details. Then on 11th April that changed. Taiwan's authorities held up the email at a media briefing.
Since Taiwan has made the message public I'll read out the full content today. It reads - and I'm quoting in full - 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. Best regards.
The email wasn't a warning and it only contained information that WHO already had picked up from internet reports. It's also important to say that the Wuhan situation had already been captured by WHO on that day, 31st December 2019. WHO activated its incident management protocols the next day, on January 1st, and then along with embedded scientists from other governments WHO began the work which continues to this day analysing the data and seeking additional information.
On 4th January WHO provided information about this situation publicly. On 5th January WHO shared detailed technical information through this IHR system. This included advice to all member states and all IHR focal points to take precautions to reduce the risk of acute respiratory infections, providing guidance on the basis that there could be human-to-human transmission.
On 10th and 11th January WHO published a comprehensive package of guidance on how to detect, test for and manage cases and protect health workers from potential human-to-human transmission based on our previous experience with coronaviruses. And, as you know, there was a global press briefing on January 14th where WHO spoke about likely scenarios around human-to-human transmission. I hope that's helpful in understanding the December 31st email.
We know there are also questions about Taiwan's participation in WHO expert meetings and questions about their participation in the World Health Assembly. WHO is an intergovernmental organisation, meaning that countries decide how the organisation is structured and on its policies.
Some 49 years ago the UN and WHO decided that there was only one legitimate representative of China within the UN system and that is the People's Republic of China. That decision still stands. WHO is also a specialised agency of the United Nations and as such aligns with the UN and must do so coherently.
The work of WHO staff, in line with our constitution, is to promote the health of all people everywhere and to assist with but not decide upon issues at the World Health Assembly. So regarding expert meetings on technical health matters last year Taiwanese experts were included at eight expert meetings and there were six other informal technical meetings.
This year in response to COVID-19 Taiwanese experts are involved in key groups and networks. We've had telephone conferences with their CDC, Dr Van Kerkhove and myself, and will do so again and, as noted, their IHR contact point links their CDC directly to WHO headquarters. In the COVID-19 response especially they have had notable successes and we appreciate their contributions.
Regarding the World Health Assembly, the next one will be in two weeks, starting on May 18th. The involvement, if any, of Taiwanese observers in that assembly is a question for the 194 governments of WHO. This is not something that WHO's Secretariat has authority to decide and indeed two countries have already formally proposed that member states consider this matter at the World Health Assembly.
A final word; a lot of attention has focused on Taiwan's participation with WHO and we understand that. We are also mindful that there are other places too that for many different reasons look for connections to WHO.
But it is not the role of WHO staff to be involved in geopolitical issues. In fact our principles of neutrality and impartiality exist to keep us out of those issues and to promote the role of evidence-based science in all our work. Our role, even when we operate in sensitive political areas or in complex humanitarian emergencies, is to follow the rules and policies that member states set out and, working within them, to strengthen health systems and access to healthcare for all people, everywhere.
Others may want to add to this. Thanks very much.

M[ichael] R[yan] Just one small clarification on the issue of atypical pneumonia. Atypical pneumonia is an extremely common form of pneumonia that occurs around the world. There are millions and millions of cases every year. An atypical pneumonia effectively refers to the fact that the cause of the pneumonia is usually atypical or not necessarily diagnosed as some of the normal causes of pneumonia, one of the usual causes for a community-acquired pneumonia.
Very often they can test negative on first testing and then they are subsequently retested for specific pathogens. In studies I know up to one-third of community-acquired pneumonias can be considered to be atypical in that you have other pathogens that are found which would be known as atypical pathogens, pathogens that don't typically cause that type of pneumonia.
Certainly at a global pneumonia they would mostly be represented when they're finally diagnosed with legionella pneumonia, chlamydia pneumonia and microplasma pneumonia as the causes, which are bacterial causes of atypical pneumonia. So the most common causes of atypical pneumonia are bacterial causes and not necessarily viral or others but obviously viruses can cause atypical pneumonia. But to say that atypical pneumonia is a homonym for SARS is entirely incorrect.
MK If I can also supplement just to say, in the beginning that email that Steve read out did not mention human-to-human transmission and I think that is important but from day one, from all of our experience with other respiratory pathogens and from SARS, from MERS you operate on the possibility that that may be possible.
From the beginning with our partners, with our global expert networks, with all of our internal staff at the three levels of the organisation we prepared for this so even the first notifications that we had through our events information system, which is what Steve has mentioned which is the IHR mechanism by which we notify all member states and contact points; we talked about protection against acute respiratory infections and there were details in there about this.
As more information became available and as more details come from the investigations that are taking place we modify the guidance.
Having said that, our first technical package of guidance that was issued to our Emergency Directors at all of the regions, to all of the WRs and made public in our website put out guidance preventing against human-to-human transmission and it focused on transmission via respiratory droplets and contact and in the situation of healthcare settings focused on the potential for aerosol transmission. or air borne transmission in the context of aerosol-generating procedures.
Again this is based on our experience with other respiratory pathogens; SARS, MERS, influenza with the first and foremost idea to protect our healthcare workers who are caring for patients.
This was before diagnostic tests were even widely available so what we aimed to do was immediately try to put out information to warn all of our member states and contact points about how to find cases through surveillance guidance, how to collect samples safely through our laboratory guidance, how to protect healthcare workers who are caring for patients in our infection prevention and control guidance, how to care for patients in our clinical management guidance, which was focused on severe respiratory disease.
Because again even without information on the details of what disease this might have caused you anticipate that this would cause a severe disease or could cause a severe disease.
Then lastly we also put out a readiness checklist which was a series of questions which helped everyone look at, how ready are we, how ready are we for an emerging respiratory pathogen, which is what this was. We've said previously, this COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be the latest disease X.
A disease X is what we are all anticipating. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when and the DG has said this before so this was something that could happen because diseases spill over from animals and this is happening all the time. But we need to ensure that we put out guidance as quickly as possible to help prevent onward spread, protect people who are caring for those patients.
TJ Thank you very much for this answer on this topic.

To summarize:
  • Taiwan is not officially recognized by the United Nations. The United Nations member states must recognize Taiwan, the WHO staff cannot do that on their own.
  • Taiwan has an official contact point with the WHO through the IHR.
  • Taiwan is included in key WHO groups and networks.
  • The first warning about this pandemic came from China itself and through ProMedmail on Dec 30th (I've quoted it here).
  • Taiwan referred to this information on Dec 31st, and did not add to it.
  • The WHO reacted promptly to the news of this outbreak, and never excluded the possibility of human-to-human transmission.
My guess is that Taiwan is trying to use its success in containing Covid-19 to get recognized as observed to the World Health Council on May 18th. This would be a step towards the UN recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign country. I'm seeing the criticism levied by Taiwan and its allies against the WHO in the light of this diplomatic goal, and don't understood it as a criticism of the work of the WHO staff.


P.S.: A WHO timeline of it's public Covid-19 communications corroborates Mr. Solomon's claims on what WHO's reaction was.

WHO issues its first guidance on the novel coronavirus
10 January 2020
Developed with reference to other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, WHO issued a tool for countries to check their ability to detect and respond to a novel coronavirus.
This information is to help with identifying main gaps, assessing risks and planning for additional investigations, response and control actions.
Key materials:
National capacities review tool

WHO reports on pneumonia of unknown cause in China
5 January 2020
WHO published its risk assessment and advice and reported on the status of patients and the public health response by national authorities to the cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
Key materials:
Disease outbreak news item