Medical journal The Lancet says Donald Trump’s letter to World Health Organisation is ‘factually incorrect’ in key claim

Owen Churchill

World-leading medical journal The Lancet challenged a key claim in US President Donald Trump’s four-page diatribe against the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday, saying the US leader cited academic research that did not exist.

In his Monday letter to WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus threatening US withdrawal from the United Nations body, Trump said the WHO had ignored “credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from The Lancet medical journal”.

The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to challenge the claim.

“Dear President Trump – You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO,” Horton wrote. “Please let me correct the record. The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”

The journal, headquartered in London, later issued a full statement challenging Trump’s “factually incorrect” statement with details about the timing, authorship and substance of the first two papers it published on the outbreak in late January.

“It is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place in December and January,” the statement concluded.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Not only did it challenge the veracity of claims made in Trump’s letter to Tedros, The Lancet also said in its statement that the allegations levelled against the WHO were “serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic”.

In that letter, Trump said that he would permanently cut US contributions to and consider withdrawal from the WHO, unless it committed to “substantive improvements within the next 30 days”.

The threat came after weeks of accusations by both Trump and Republican allies in Congress that the WHO has acted deferentially to Beijing, with the US leader recently describing the body as “a puppet of China”.

WHO officials have welcomed scrutiny of their response to the outbreak, but have called for such reviews to happen once the pandemic is brought under control.

The letter came as WHO members moved to approve a resolution calling for an investigation into the coronavirus pandemic and the WHO’s response. Echoing WHO officials, Beijing, which supported the motion, said that such a review should come at the “appropriate time”.

Among its charges against the WHO, Trump’s missive collated a list of what it called “grossly inaccurate or misleading” claims made by the agency, including remarks from Tedros on January 28 praising China’s “transparency”, despite reports that authorities had silenced doctors.

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Yet those accusations refer to a time when even Trump himself was lauding similar praise on the Chinese government, tweeting on January 24 that Beijing had been “working very hard to contain the Coronavirus” and voicing US appreciation for its “efforts and transparency.”

“In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” Trump wrote.

And as recently as February 24, Trump spoke glowingly of the WHO’s work, tweeting that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO had been “working hard and very smart”.

Horton has spoken out against Trump’s position on the WHO before, using a recent opinion piece published in The Lancet to castigate the US leader for his mixed messaging and the decision in April to suspend funding to the agency while his administration reviewed its pandemic response.

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“President Trump’s decision to harm an agency whose sole purpose is to protect the health and well-being of the world’s peoples is a crime against humanity,” Horton wrote then. “It is a knowing and inhumane attack against the global civilian population.”

Horton has served in a number of roles with the WHO, and is currently listed as chair or co-chair on at least two WHO expert panels, according to the agency’s website. Last year he received a “Health Leaders” award from the WHO in recognition of his “outstanding leadership in global health”.

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