A WHO tweet downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus was posted by a mid-ranking official who wanted to keep China happy, according to a report by the Guardian.

The message was posted on January 14, and says that there is “no clear evidence” that the coronavirus beginning to sweep Wuhan, China, was capable of spreading directly between humans.

—World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020

In the days that followed the tweet, it became clear that human-to-human transmission was indeed possible.

The message has been cited in dozens of articles dissecting the WHO’s early response to the pandemic, and is widely quoted on social media as an unusually clear example of advice that is unambiguously wrong in hindsight.

WHO director general Tedros

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a virtual news briefing on COVID-19 from WHO headquarters in Geneva on April 6, 2020.

AFP via Getty Images


It emerged this week that by January 14, officials in China already knew that the virus could spread between people — and would likely become a pandemic. They waited for a further six days before making that information public.

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However, even without that information, some in the WHO were warning of the danger of a rapid spread.

They include the US expert Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who on January 14 warned that “we need to prepare ourselves” for the possibility of mass human transmission.

And, according to a new report by Julian Borger of the Guardian, it was internal WHO discomfort with these warnings that prompted the “no clear transmission” tweet.

Borger wrote:

“[The tweet] was issued on the same day the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove (a US immunologist) gave a press briefing in Geneva warning of precisely the opposite — the potential for rapid spread.

“Concerned that her briefing conflicted with the initial Chinese findings, a middle-ranking official told the social media team to put out a tweet to balance the Van Kerkhove briefing.”

The article goes on to note that the tweet “does not appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy” to appease China.

Critics of the WHO, however, have seen a broader pattern of deference.

Emily Ruahala of The Washington Post this week reported comments by public health experts, as well as lawmakers in Germany and Japan, criticizing the WHO’s closeness to China.

The most extreme criticism has come from President Donald Trump, who called the WHO “very China-centric” in a coronavirus news conference and said he would halt US funding to the body, worth some $400 million per year.

Business Insider has contacted the WHO for comment.

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