- - Monday, July 6, 2020

Absolving a transgression requires the guilty party to fess up and make amends for the misdeed. Cleaning the slate also means practicing better behavior going forward. With fitting dispatch, disease experts in China and the World Health Organization (WHO) are addressing a fresh health peril brewing in China. Bravo, but these overseers of medical mayhem still owe the world — and the United States in particular — redress for their failures in repelling the current coronavirus pandemic. All should not yet be forgiven and forgotten.

Chinese researchers reported last week that they have identified a new strain of swine flu with “all the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans,” according to scientists at Chinese universities and China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The strain has genetic ties to the H1N1 swine flu of 2009, which killed about 12,500 Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The WHO has rushed to weigh in on the new threat, urging global health organizations to “be vigilant and continue surveillance, even in the coronavirus pandemic.” That’s handy advice — one pandemic at a time is more than enough. Too bad the disease detectives weren’t as forthcoming when they were covering for China’s lack of transparency in early January when COVID-19 was about to visit stealthy death upon an unsuspecting planet.

In an unobtrusive about-face, WHO altered its online COVID-19 timeline to report that it was its own office in China — not the Chinese government — that discovered the first inkling of trouble on Dec. 31, 2019. It appeared in the form of a statement about cases of “viral pneumonia” posted online by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. At the same time, WHO officials in Geneva spotted a similar advisory on a U.S. website operated by the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

The Washington Free Beacon on Thursday put the duplicity this way: “Contrary to claims from both Chinese officials and the World Health Organization, China did not report the existence of the coronavirus in late 2019, according to a WHO timeline tracking the spread of the virus.” Reportedly, the timeline fudging was revealed in a report released in June by Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Discombobulation is a common reaction to sudden surprise. Confusion soon had the look, though, of a cover-up. Nearly three weeks later, the WHO was still dithering over whether to sound a global alarm, against the wishes of Chinese President Xi Jinping, that COVID-19 constituted a pandemic. The organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, flew to Beijing to consult with Mr. Xi. Returning to Geneva, he commented: “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken. I left in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency.”

It was not until Jan. 30 that Mr. Tedros finally issued the pandemic warning. The following day, President Trump imposed the first of a series of coronavirus travel bans. The damage had already done, with hundreds of thousands of infected Chinese citizens traveling to foreign destinations, including the United States. Upwards of 130,000 Americans and more than a half-million globally have lost their lives. In response, an anguished Mr. Trump informed Mr. Tedros in April that he would suspend U.S. contributions to the organization’s budget, which in 2019 amounted to $419 million.

The bottom line: Chinese authorities failed to reveal the rapid spread of infection until Jan. 3, and only then in response to WHO queries. The health institution then attempted to shield China from blame by fudging the record to falsely credit its government with sounding the alarm.

Americans will likely never know how many lives might have been saved if China’s Communist Party leaders had placed the common good of humanity over their national pride and supported rather than resisted a timely warning of the coming disaster.

The swine flu advisory posted by China and endorsed by the WHO might be an indication of chastened hearts, but it will take more, much more, to restore trust in a global health system created to safeguard the world from just the sort of plague it failed to contain. A new World Health Organization boss who would not shy away from offending China if it meant saving lives would be a welcome first step.

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