In Hunt for Virus Source, W.H.O. Let China Take Charge

As it praised Beijing, the World Health Organization concealed concessions to China and may have sacrificed the best chance to unravel the virus’s origins. Now it’s a favorite Trump attack line.


GENEVA — On a cold weekend in mid-February, when the world still harbored false hope that the new coronavirus could be contained, a World Health Organization team arrived in Beijing to study the outbreak and investigate a critical question: How did the virus jump from animals to humans?

At that point, there were only three confirmed deaths from Covid-19 outside China and scientists hoped that finding an animal source for the coronavirus would unlock clues about how to stop it, treat it and prevent similar outbreaks.

“If we don’t know the source then we’re equally vulnerable in the future to a similar outbreak,” Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergency director, had said that week in Geneva. “Understanding that source is a very important next step.”

What the team members did not know was that they would not be allowed to investigate the source at all. Despite Dr. Ryan’s pronouncements, and over the advice of its emergency committee, the organization’s leadership had quietly negotiated terms that sidelined its own experts. They would not question China’s initial response or even visit the live-animal market in the city of Wuhan where the outbreak seemed to have originated.

Nine months and more than 1.1 million deaths later, there is still no transparent, independent investigation into the source of the virus. Notoriously allergic to outside scrutiny, China has impeded the effort, while leaders of the World Health Organization, if privately frustrated, have largely ceded control, even as the Trump administration has fumed.

From the earliest days of the outbreak, the World Health Organization — the only public health body with a global remit — has been both indispensable and impotent. The Geneva-based agency has delivered key information about testing, treatment and vaccine science. When the Trump administration decided to develop its own test kits, rather than rely on the W.H.O. blueprint, the botched result led to delays.

At the same time, the health organization pushed misleading and contradictory information about the risk of spread from symptomless carriers. Its experts were slow to accept that the virus could be airborne. Top health officials encouraged travel as usual, advice that was based on politics and economics, not science.

The W.H.O.’s staunchest defenders note that, by the nature of its constitution, it is beholden to the countries that finance it. And it is hardly the only international body bending to China’s might. But even many of its supporters have been frustrated by the organization’s secrecy, its public praise for China and its quiet concessions. Those decisions have indirectly helped Beijing to whitewash its early failures in handling the outbreak.

Now, as a new Covid-19 wave engulfs Europe and the United States, the organization is in the middle of a geopolitical standoff.

China’s authoritarian

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Next up in hunt for COVID-19 vaccine: Testing shots in kids

The global hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine for kids is only just beginning — a lagging start that has some U.S. pediatricians worried they may not know if any shots work for young children in time for the next school year.

Older adults may be most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but ending the pandemic will require vaccinating children, too. Last week, Pfizer Inc. received permission to test its vaccine in U.S. kids as young as 12, one of only a handful of attempts around the world to start exploring if any experimental shots being pushed for adults also can protect children.

“I just figured the more people they have to do tests on, the quicker they can put out a vaccine and people can be safe and healthy,” said 16-year-old Katelyn Evans, who became the first teen to get an injection in the Pfizer study at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Multiple vaccine candidates are in final-stage studies in tens of thousands of adults, and scientists are hopeful that the next few months will bring evidence that at least some of them are safe and effective enough for widespread use.

But when the first shots arrive, they’re unlikely to be recommended for children. Vaccines can’t be given to youngsters unless they’ve been tested in their age group — a major hurdle in efforts to reopen schools and resume more normal activities that are critical to families’ well-being.

Children represent about 10% of COVID-19 cases documented in the U.S. And while children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill, about 120 have died in the U.S. alone, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s about how many U.S. children die from flu in an average year. Additionally, a small number have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus.

Overall, Anderson says COVID-19’s impact on children is greater than some other diseases that require routine pediatric vaccinations.

Aside from their own health risks is the still unanswered question about how easily children can infect others. In a letter to federal health officials, the AAP cited recent evidence that those over age 10 may spread the virus just as easily as adults do.

Add missing school and other factors unique to children, and it’s unethical “to allow children to take on great burdens during this pandemic but not have the opportunity to benefit from a vaccine,” Dr. Sara Goza, president of the pediatrics academy, wrote.

Globally, pediatric studies are only hesitantly emerging. In China, Sinovac and SinoPharm have opened studies that can test children as young as 3.

A British study of a vaccine by AstraZeneca allows for testing of a low dose in certain children but the

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