Trump Refers to Wuhan Study That Doesn't Exist in WHO Letter, Lancet Editor Says

The editor of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has called out an inaccuracy in a letter from Donald Trump to the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), after the president claimed the journal published reports of the coronavirus spreading in China in early December 2019.

On Monday, Trump wrote to WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus threatening to withdraw the U.S. from the U.N. health agency, citing a series of alleged "failings" on how it has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter, Trump stated the WHO "consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal. The World Health Organization failed to independently investigate credible reports that conflicted directly with the Chinese government's official accounts, even those that came from sources within Wuhan itself."

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with restaurant executives in the State Dining Room of the White House May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

However, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet tweeted on Tuesday: "Dear President Trump - You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO. 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."

In a statement, the publication said Trump's claim is "factually incorrect. The Lancet published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China."

The Lancet published its first report on the coronavirus on January 24, 2020. The paper by scientists in China detailed the first 41 cases of COVID-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic.

According to the statement, the authors "worked with us [The Lancet] to quickly make information about this new epidemic outbreak and the disease it caused fully and freely available to an international audience."

A second paper also published on January 24 by scientists and physicians from Hong Kong and mainland China described the first scientific evidence of the coronavirus spreading between humans. Trump claimed in his letter that in late December, "Taiwanese authorities had communicated information to the World Health Organization indicating human-to-human transmission of the virus."

The Lancet said: "The allegations levelled against WHO in President Trump's letter are serious and damaging to efforts to strengthen international cooperation to control this pandemic. 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."

Around four hours after his initial tweet, Horton posted again alongside the statement by his publication.

He wrote: "Pr [president] Trump claims we published reports in Dec 2019 claiming a virus was spreading in Wuhan. Untrue. The first paper describing 41 patients with COVID-19 was published on Jan 24. That paper identified symptom onset of the first Wuhan patient as Dec 1. No cover up. Full transparency."

The situation comes after The Lancet published an editorial on Saturday suggesting American voters should not re-elect Trump in the upcoming November presidential election. The article argued the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been weakened over a period of decades, including by the Trump administration.

It stated: "The Trump administration's further erosion of the CDC will harm global cooperation in science and public health, as it is trying to do by defunding WHO. A strong CDC is needed to respond to public health threats, both domestic and international, and to help prevent the next inevitable pandemic. Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics."

Commenting broadly on Trump's letter to the WHO, Devi Sridhar, professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: "President Trump doesn't understand what the WHO can and cannot do. It is a normative, technical agency which needs to keep member states at the table. If he thinks they need more power then member states should agree and delegate it more.

"This letter is written for his base and to deflect blame. China and the U.S. are fighting it out like divorced parents while WHO is the child caught in the middle trying not to pick sides."

Newsweek has contacted the White House and the CDC for comment. A WHO spokesperson told Newsweek: "WHO acknowledges receipt of the letter from the President of the United States. We are considering the contents of the letter."

This article has been updated with comment from a WHO spokesperson.