China again blocks Taiwan from WHO talks – and what Taiwan told WHO in December 2019 about a new form of SARS in Wuhan

May 18, 2021

TAIPEI - For a fifth consecutive year, China has blocked an invitation for Taiwan to be given observer status by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. China has again demanded that Taiwan publicly accept it is part of China before it can sit in on the WHA meeting, scheduled for next week (May 24-June 1).

Taiwan held observer status at the WHA until 2015. That status was withdrawn because of objections by China after Taiwan's Kuomintang party lost power to be replaced by Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai is Taiwan's first woman President.

Taiwan this year won support from 50 countries, including the United States, much of Europe and Australia, for observer status at the WHA meeting.

The French Senate voted 304-zero with 19 abstentions to support Taiwan's bid.

Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Secretary of State at France's Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, said the French Government supported Taiwan's participation in international organisations.

Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait was important to the people of the world, he said.

In a joint communique issued in London earlier this month, the G7 said it supported Taiwan's "meaningful participation in World Health Organisation forums and the World Health Assembly".

It said: "The international community should be able to benefit from the experience of all partners, including Taiwan's successful contribution to the tackling of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry described statements made by China when rejecting Taiwan's bid to attend next week's meeting of the WHA as "shameless lies" and "a malicious blockade".



How and when Taiwan warned WHO of emerging COVID threat


In response last year to a World Health Organisation denial that it had ever alerted WHO to the possibility of human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, Taiwan says its Centres for Disease Control (Taiwan CDC) initially learned from online sources in late 2019 that there had been at least seven cases of atypical pneumonia in Wuhan, China.

The term "atypical pneumonia", a statement from Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre says, is commonly used to refer to SARS, "a disease transmitted between humans caused by coronavirus".

"Owing to its experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003," the statement says, "Taiwan vigilantly kept track of information about the new outbreak.

"On December 31, 2019, Taiwan sent an email to the International Health Regulations (IHR) focal point under WHO, informing WHO of its understanding of the disease and requesting further information from WHO.

"Given the lack of clarity at the time, as well as the many rumours that were circulating, Taiwan's aim was to ensure that all relevant parties remained alert, especially since the outbreak occurred just before the Lunar New Year holiday, which typically sees tremendous amounts of travel.

"To be prudent, in the email we took pains to refer to 'atypical pneumonia', and specifically noted that patients had been isolated for treatment.

"Public health professionals could discern from this wording that there was a real possibility of human-to-human transmission of the disease.

"However, because at that time there were as yet no cases of the disease in Taiwan, we could not state directly and conclusively that there had been human-to-human contact."

Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre says the Taiwan CDC also contacted the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in a bid to obtain more information.

"However, in response teo our inquiries, the WHO IHR focal point only responded with a short message stating that Taiwan's information had been forwarded to expert colleagues; China provided only a press release.

"Even though Taiwan strongly suspected that human-to-human transmission of the disease was already occurring at the time, we were unable to gain confirmation through existing channels," the statement says.

"Therefore, on December 30, 2019 (the day before its email to WHO), the Taiwan Government activated enhanced border control and quarantine measures based on the assumption that human-to-human transmission was in fact occurring.

"These measures included screening passengers on flights from Wuhan prior to disembarkation.

"In mid-January (2020), the Taiwan CDC dispatched experts to Wuhan to gain a better understanding of the epidemic, the control measures taken there, and patients' exposure history.

"Based on preliminary research, Taiwan determined that this form of pneumonia could indeed spread via human-to-human transmission."