Reports of respiratory illnesses and clusters of pneumonia emanating from China have caused worldwide alarm. The reasons are understandable: exactly four years ago, the deadly pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus had surfaced in Wuhan, China. Hospitals now in Beijing and Liaoning are flooded with patients, large numbers being children, entering emergency rooms.
What cannot be forgotten about that traumatic time is that China was guarded, cryptic and irregular in its communications. The WHO, to put it charitably, could not persuade China to change its ways. As a result, the global response was a delayed, befuddled one. Today, no one wants an encore of that hide-and-seek episode. But there are signs of a similar routine playing itself out. China first spoke on the current outbreak at a press conference on November 13; authorities from the National Health Commission attributed this increase to the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and circulation of known pathogens. The WHO has attributed its knowledge of clusters of undiagnosed pneumonia among children to media reports and a publicly available surveillance system for infections called ProMED. From this, it would appear the Chinese yet again are not volunteering information to the agency on a day-to-day basis. On November 22, the WHO requested the Chinese for additional epidemiological and clinical information as well as laboratory results from these reported clusters. China has responded by saying that it has not detected any unusual or novel pathogens, reiterating its November 13 position.
China’s reluctance to voluntarily share information with the WHO unless the agency specifically asks for it is simply unacceptable. Here, it is useful to recall what unfolded nearly four years back. The WHO declared the Covid-19 virus outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, a full 51 days after the virus was known to have spread in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in China. There was a disastrous delay in sharing data to assess how rapidly the virus would spread or what risk it posed, even as WHO was lauding China for efforts to contain the virus. While there are no reasons to fear the worst at this stage, it is better to be ahead of the curve by being informed.
The WHO, UN organisations and other countries should push China to be transparent. Indian authorities have declared that the country is at “low risk” from both the avian influenza cases reported from China as also the cluster of respiratory illnesses. However, the need of the hour is to be vigilant and keep a close watch on the disease surveillance systems here. It is best to be alert in medical and logistical terms for any potential public health risk — while being part of global efforts to understand the clinical aspects of the disease spike.