As China’s struggle with the Wuhan coronavirus has evolved, with daily announcements of increasing infections and deaths, the picture has been a bleak one.
But China has found support in the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), which has publicly praised China even as academics and other independent experts have proved much more skeptical.
The virus, formally known as 2019-nCoV, had killed at least 492 people and infected more than 23,000 worldwide as of Wednesday morning local time.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that China’s efforts to fight the virus provided a “window of opportunity” to defeat it.
“There is a window of opportunity because of the high measures, the strong measures China is taking at the epicenter, at the source,” Tedros said. “So let’s use this opportunity to prevent further spread and control it.”
The centerpiece of China’s response has been a sweeping quarantine in Wuhan and 15 nearby cities, locking down some 50 million people in the hope of preventing the spread.
However, according to a recent peer-reviewed study, it came too late. The study, published last week in The Lancet, modeled the progress of the outbreak and said the quarantine would have a “negligible” effect because it was not implemented until after the virus had spread to other cities.
It also suggested that official figures drastically under-represented the true scale of the outbreak. The study, which used a mathematical model, said that as of January 25 some 75,000 people in Wuhan likely had the virus, at a time when the official figure was around 760.
While some people are known to recover from the coronavirus, the Chinese Health Commission has warned that recovering once does not provide immunity.
China has also been criticized for its punishment of those who tried to raise the alarm sooner. One Wuhan doctor tried to warn his colleagues in December, when the virus was just beginning to spread, but was told by state police to stop the “illegal activity” of “making false comments,” BBC News reported.
Even China has accepted a degree of blame. The country issued a statement Monday recognizing “shortcomings and deficiencies” in its response to the virus, a rare admission that it had made mistakes.
Scientists believe the Wuhan coronavirus could soon be considered a pandemic.
The World Health Organization, probably the single most influential body in a position to declare the virus a pandemic, has so far not done so.
Earlier in the outbreak, WHO officials surprised many by deciding not to describe the outbreak as a “global health emergency” — a lesser standard of disaster than pandemic.
One week later, confronted with its further spread, the WHO revised its decision and did declare the emergency.
The pattern of China’s handling of the outbreak has a historical parallel. In the early 2000s, China was criticized for its response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which genetically related to the current outbreak.
The country actively suppressed the scale of the disease, which experts concluded made it worse. It later apologized.
Representatives from the WHO did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Gemah Ripah Sumberahayu