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AP Exclusive: WHO’s behind-the-scenes frustration to get virus info from China

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China and the Trump administration had opposing narratives about the early days of the new coronavirus epidemic: China bragged about quickly providing information to the world through the World Health Organization, while the Trump administration accused China and WHO of colluding to hide information.

It took The Associated Press to step in and show the facts: Rather than colluding with China, WHO itself was being kept in the dark, and praised China in public to shake loose information while expressing considerable frustration in private.

Drawing from internal WHO recordings obtained by the reporters, as well as documents and dozens of interviews, the AP got the definitive story on the early days of a pandemic that has killed more than 420,000 people worldwide.

In a deeply reported tale full of revelations,AP revealed that among other delays, China sat on releasing the genome of the virus for more than a week after three different labs had fully decoded it.

The story fell just four days after President Trump declared that he was cutting ties with the WHO. It was so sensitive that the AP decided not to name the two main reporters to avoid blowback in China and to prevent sources from being identified.

The investigation was months in the making,with both reporters pursuing different pieces of it unbeknownst to each other. One reporter had the WHO end of the story,after getting extraordinary recordings of internal meetings from a longtime source who was so terrified that they wouldn’t let us use them. The other reporter had the China end of the story, with documents and interviews on how China had delayed the release of the gene sequence in January.

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, second from left, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9, 2020. He is flanked by Michael Ryan, left, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies program, and Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s Health Emergencies program. AP has revealed that WHO debated how to press China for gene sequences and detailed patient data without angering authorities, worried about losing access and jeopardizing Chinese scientists. – Salvatore Di Nolfi / Keystone via AP

During a conversation about their work,the reporters realized each had half of a jigsaw puzzle. They went back to the source who provided the recordings with a timeline of the delays on China’s end,to persuade the individual that we had a larger story and that the recordings were critical.

After much careful persuasion, the source agreed to a larger story on condition that we not use a byline; otherwise the person was convinced WHO or China would find a way to track back to the source. The recordings gave AP a level of access and insight that no other organization has had.

Meanwhile,both reporters called dozens of other sources to verify the information they were getting. Geneva reporter Jamey Keaten reached out to official sources to protect the anonymity of the main reporters; videojournalist Sam McNeil reached out to Chinese officials,and the AP’s Bangkok bureau speedily put the team in touch with Thai sources.

The story,edited by international enterprise editor Mary Rajkumar,was tricky to write: It needed to be hard-hitting but nuanced at the same time, given its sensitivity. It was also complicated by the chronology and the need to figure out what we could safely say without compromising sources.

The recordings provided by a longtime source gave AP a level of access and insight that no other organization has had.

To add to the balance, AP transmitted a fact-check story by Washington journalist Hope Yen on Trump’s speeches denouncing WHO. The fact check was quickly matched by Politifact. Digital storytelling producer Dario Lopez also put together an interactive timeline that helped with the context.

The story broke through in terms of play and feedback,even though it ran at the peak of the U.S. protests over race and police brutality. Asia sales staff reported heavy usage of the story across Japan,Korea,Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Outside the AP,the story received plenty of reaction. It sparked five editorials,including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal – taking opposite points of view,in a testimony to the balance of the AP story. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented on it,as did at least two British MPs and senators from Montana,Florida, Georgia and more.

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Shi Zhengli, left, works with other researchers in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China’s Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. On Dec. 30, 2019, Shi, a renowned virus expert, was alerted to the new coronavirus, and by Jan. 2, her team had fully decoded its genome. But China’s top medical authority, the National Health Commission, issued a confidential order that barred Shi’s lab from publishing the sequence or warning of the possible danger. – Chinatopix via AP

Even a Chinese reporter for the Xinhua agency called it “a hell of an investigative story” – in a post that was later deleted. It was cited by the BBC,NPR,The New York Times,CNN,Axios and more,garnering comments such as like “extraordinary,” “must-read,” “groundbreaking,” “brilliant,” and “The Associated Press is beating all the competition.” The story was the first item on the well-respected Sinocism Newsletter by Bill Bishop,who called it “quite a blockbuster story.” It was also praised by academics,one of whom called it a “huge public service.”

For in-depth reporting that drew back the curtains and punctured the preferred narratives of China,the World Health Organization and the Trump administration at the same time, the AP reporters who produced this stunning piece earn Best of the Week honors.


For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:

AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.

Lives Lost: stories behind the victims of COVID-19.

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