China, The WHO and The Power Grab That Fuelled a Pandemic

The Sunday Times

In August 2021 The Sunday Times Insight team produced a 10,000 word exposé revealing evidence that the World Health Organisation missed its only chance to stop the Covid-19 pandemic because of a major campaign by the Chinese state to secure influence over its decision-making. We showed how China had propelled its chosen candidates into the post of WHO director general by exploiting its financial leverage over some of the world’s poorest nations.

Beijing’s influence campaign was launched after its government was criticised by the WHO over the Sars outbreak in 2002. The crisis was brought under control after the organisation’s then director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued strong advice against travelling to virus hotspots in China and criticised its leadership for withholding information about the disease.

WHO sources say China felt so stung by this “humiliation” that it threw its weight behind reforms to limit the agency’s power and in 2006 helped install its favoured candidate, Dr Margaret Chan, a Chinese national, in the top job. Beijing launched an “extraordinarily aggressive campaign” to help her win power, by cancelling debts and doubling donations to voting African countries before the election. Chan then introduced new ‘Fifa-style’ secret ballot voting rules to give countries vulnerable to diplomatic pressure the same voting power as richer countries.

China paid far less to the WHO than other major countries. Instead it ploughed its money into cutting private deals with small voting countries. In 2017 Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a long-time friend of China, secured the director general’s job after Beijing threw its weight behind his candidacy. A former Ethiopian foreign minister, Tedros used his role at the health agency to aid China’s global campaign for economic dominance, even appointing Beijing’s ally Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean dictator, as a WHO goodwill ambassador. He further repaid his debt to Beijing when the Covid-19 pandemic began.

He failed to publicly challenge Chinese misinformation about the outbreak, delayed declaring an international emergency and protected China’s economy by discouraging governments from introducing travel controls. This allowed the virus to spread across the globe in the crucial early weeks, resulting in millions of deaths.

Insight also disclosed how the WHO struck a backroom deal in secret with the Chinese government which sabotaged the world’s attempts to get to the truth about the origins of the virus. Its officials held secret negotiations with Beijing that watered down the independence of the inquiry into Covid-19’s origins, giving the Chinese a veto in the selection of scientists for the mission. The WHO also agreed its scientists would not examine the theory that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the first cases emerged late in 2019. Insight’s revelations were followed up around the world, achieved unprecedented online engagement from readers and attracted large numbers of new subscriptions for the newspaper.