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Lancet editor says study cited by Trump in WHO letter doesn’t exist



  • President Donald Trump claimed in a Monday letter to the World Health Organization that it ignored early warnings on the novel coronavirus, including a study published December 2019 in British medical journal The Lancet.
  • Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor, said that such a study did not exist. 
  • “Dear President Trump — You cite The Lancet in your attack on WHO. Please let me correct the record,” Horton tweeted. “The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”
  • Trump’s letter on Monday threatened to permanently freeze US funding to and membership of the WHO.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The editor of prestigious British medical journal The Lancet has disputed the existence of a study that President Donald Trump claimed was published in the journal in December 2019, sounded an early alarm on the novel coronavirus, and was ignored by the World Health Organization.

Trump’s letter, addressed to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had accused the agency of accepting China’s attempts to downplay the outbreak in its early days, despite scientific reports indicating its urgency.

It also threatened to permanently withdraw US funding and membership of the WHO unless the agency made “major substantive improvements” within 30 days.

“The World Health Organization consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal,” he wrote.

But it appears such a study doesn’t exist.

Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, disputed Trump’s claims about the study, saying in a Tuesday morning tweet: “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.”

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request to identify the specific Lancet study the president referred to in the letter. 

A study published by the journal on January 24, 2020 — named “Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China” — notes that “in December, 2019, Wuhan, Hubei province, China, became the centre of an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause.”

If a December 2019 Lancet study does not exist, it would not be the only mistaken claim in Trump’s letter.

In it, the president also asserted that Taiwan had warned of human-to-human transmission of the disease as early as December 31.

In fact, on that day, Taiwan had written to the WHO inquiring about a new form of pneumonia that had emerged in China, The Guardian reported.

trump thumbs up.JPG

Trump give a thumbs up to reporters and cameras on the White House South Lawn on May 1, 2020.

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Horton has criticised Trump’s response to the pandemic before. 

In a May 15 editorial, the journal accused Trump of undermining public health officials in the US, and urged Americans to vote in a different president in November. 

And in a recent interview with China’s state broadcaster CGTN, Horton defended Chinese scientists’ response to the crisis.

“In my view, the scientists and doctors I know in China have done the most tremendous job in advising the government, treating the patients, and protecting the lives of the Chinese citizens,” Horton said.

“China should be very proud of its scientific and medical community. For world leaders to be so critical of China is not only unfair, but plainly incorrect and factually untrue.”

Those remarks had come shortly after Trump excoriated China’s response to the pandemic.

He has also been fiercely critical of the late response by the US and UK to impose lockdown measures to slow the spread of the disease. The Trump administration is trying to reopen states as soon as possible.

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