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Sourcing, teamwork deliver major AP scoop on WHO-China report of virus origins

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Geneva chief correspondent Jamey Keaten and Greater China news director Ken Moritsugu scooped the rest of the world with the contents of the long-awaited report by Chinese and World Health Organization experts on the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

The alert summed it up: “Draft of WHO-China report obtained by AP says the coronavirus likely spread from animals to humans, lab leak unlikely.”

Where and how the pandemic started has become not only a massive scientific challenge but also a red-hot geopolitical tussle,given the devastating impact the virus has had. This was such a significant scoop that it forced our direct competitors to quote AP in their headlines and stories for hours,as they and others scrambled to match it. Play for the story — online,broadcast and print — was stunning,and several customers asked AP for their own copies of the report.

How did AP do it?

After many delays,Keaten got a tip that the report was almost ready to be released to U.N. member governments. He quickly cast a wide net among at least a dozen trusted diplomats and other sources seeking a copy whenever it became available,and published a setup story that also drew attention. On Sunday the report was sent to diplomatic missions, and that preparation paid off: A source who had been cultivated for years sent the report to Keaten electronically — at 1 a.m. on Monday.

Who China Combo
At left, Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization team holds up a chart showing pathways of transmission of the coronavirusvirus during a joint news conference at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, Feb. 9, 2021. At right, Liang Wannian, the Chinese co-leader of the joint investigation, listens to a journalist’s question after a news conference in Beijing, March 31, 2021, one day after the release of a World Health Organization report saying that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely.” – AP Photos / Ng Han Guan, Mark Schiefelbein

Suffering a bout of insomnia,Keaten glanced at his phone at 3 a.m.,saw the report,and quickly relayed the file to Moritsugu in China,who had been a key leader in preparing for the report’s release. Working with his colleagues in Asia,Moritsugu went through more than 100 pages of words and data to craft a carefully worded alert and story around it. It was on the wire at dawn in Europe,as colleagues there and in the U.S. joined the effort to seek comments from WHO and others. On the video side,AP prepared a six-minute archive package showing the WHO team’s visit to Wuhan and the bats from which the virus may have originated. AP staff also printed and ran footage of the report itself,highlighting key passages,and filmed on-camera reaction from the WHO chief and China’s foreign ministry.

Keaten’s relationship with his source was built for years over coffees,strolls at the United Nations compound in Geneva,light chit-chat about families at cocktail parties, and weightier talk of political infighting and the Swiss city’s diplomatic underworld.

Repeated scoops on WHO have made AP the go-to news organization for credible, unbiased reporting on the U.N. health agency.

But a real genesis for this scoop was Maria Cheng: The London-based medical writer’s repeated scoops on WHO have given AP name recognition as the go-to news organization for credible,unbiased reporting on the U.N. agency’s inner workings — and the disconnect between its public statements and the concerns that officials express privately. Those stories have ratcheted up the pressure on WHO for greater transparency,and it led some diplomats to take up the cause on their own.

For giving the AP a massive lead on the day’s biggest story,and harnessing and distilling AP’s global presence to produce news with speed and accuracy, Keaten and Moritsugu earn AP’s Best of the Week honors.

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