Embarrassing, isn't it? With the first case we get floods of detail. With the September 7 update, we get the epidemiological equivalent of name, rank, and serial number. With today's update, WHO shrugs off 18 cases with details that the Brits would define by the technical term of sweet buggerall.
I've seen this before. In the early months of H5N1 in Indonesia, WHO's updates were full of detail. As the outbreaks and human cases continued, updates got shorter. Meanwhile, Indonesia's Ministry of Health shut up altogether about new H5N1 cases.
What we have here, folks, is not a failure to communicate. It's a refusal to communicate: a refusal first by the Saudis and second by WHO.
I understand WHO's need to stay on good terms with anxious governments, just as a physician would stay on good terms with the anxious family of a very sick patient. But a ministry of health is not an anxious relative—it's a colleague under stress, the doctor in charge of a difficult case. No physician likes to criticize a colleague. Everyone makes mistakes, and next time it could be the critic's turn.
Even so, the patient's welfare is more important than the colleague's. The Saudis are risking their patients, and ensuring many more patients to come, by their refusal to give the global health community all the details of their past and present MERS cases. WHO, meanwhile, is risking its own reputation and effectiveness by failing to demand and publicize more information from Minister Al-Rabeeah, Dr. Memish, and the other Saudi professionals.
(Dr. Memish, by the way, tells the Wall Street Journal he thinks his ministry is being very transparent just because it has a MERS website where its pious but uninformative reports are posted.)
When journals like Nature are reporting "Progress stalled on coronavirus" then WHO should recognize that in the active voice the headline would read "WHO stalls progress on coronavirus." And WHO should understand that with every day it stalls on MERS, it makes itself less able to deal with the next phase of the disease—not to mention the next outbreak of something new.