China firmly denies covering up outbreak, delaying action

Beijing claims it didn’t know until Jan 19 how infectious the virus is, says it didn’t withhold information
Residents wearing face masks line up for nucleic acid testings at a residential compound in Wuhan.(REUTERS)
Residents wearing face masks line up for nucleic acid testings at a residential compound in Wuhan.(REUTERS)
Updated on May 16, 2020 06:00 AM IST
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Beijing/Washington | ByBloomberg | Posted by: Shankhyaneel Sarkar

China said it did not know until Jan. 19 how infectious the new coronavirus is, pushing back against accusations that it intentionally withheld information about the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan from the world.

While Chinese officials knew that there were signs of human-to-human transmission earlier, it was hard to ascertain the new virus’s level of contagiousness, said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission, at a press briefing in Beijing on Friday. There are diseases like HIV that while infectious, are not easily transmitted from person to person, he said.

It was only on Jan. 19 that Chinese scientists concluded that the virus spreads easily among people and China released that information to the world the next day, said Zeng.

The accounting of events from top officials came as China faces growing blame for a delay in sounding the alarm about the coronavirus, which allowed people to spread it unwittingly for some time. Zeng was responding to an Associated Press report in April that cited confidential documents showing Chinese officials were internally discussing the possibility of widespread infections six days before President Xi Jinping warned the public of the dangers of the virus.

The alleged delay resulted in millions of people traveling from Wuhan to elsewhere in the country and the world, seeding a pandemic that has now sickened over 4.4 million people and killed over 300,000.

Giving a rundown of events since the crisis began, Zeng said that China concluded on Jan. 9 that it was dealing with a novel coronavirus and began developing test kits the next day. On Jan. 12, it informed the World Health Organization about the outbreak.

On Jan. 14, a national meeting of provincial health officials was held. “Many uncertainties remained. We understood there’s more research needed on human-to-human transmission and we couldn’t rule out the chance of a further spread of the virus,” said Zeng. “But we couldn’t reach conclusions to many questions.”

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Besides its alleged delay in disclosing information on the virus outbreak at an earlier stage, China has also faced skepticism about its official tallies of deaths and infections.

The pandemic has revived tensions between the world’s two largest economies. China and the US are escalating disputes from visas to supply chains as the two countries continue blaming each other regarding the origins of the virus, a mystery that global experts are trying to unravel.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo accused China of covering up the virus by silencing doctors who tried to warn about the disease and ordering that samples be destroyed on Jan. 3. Liu Dengfeng, another NHC official, said that China did issue a document on Jan. 3 about lab safety and that the country’s regulations have clear requirements for how to handle samples, including their destruction.

“The comments made by these US officials are taken out of context and intended to confuse the public,” Liu said, adding that China has shared samples with countries including the US, UK and Australia in recent years.

Along with the US, countries including Australia and Germany have sought an investigation into how the previously unknown virus made the jump from animals to humans before being discovered in Wuhan last year.

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Asked if China rejected a request from the WHO to visit the P4 lab in Wuhan that some have speculated is linked to the virus, NHC official Li Mingzhu said the agency has never asked to visit a particular lab in China and it’s thus “not true” that such a request was turned down.

Li wasn’t asked if China would allow access to the lab if a request was made.

While the number of infections has dropped dramatically in China, the nation still faces the threat of a second wave after a new cluster emerged in its northeastern region ahead of high-profile political meetings scheduled to convene next week in Beijing.

Xi on Thursday called for stronger measures to contain any risk that could undermine the country’s success so far. In Wuhan, officials have been directed to prepare for mass testing the entire population of 11 million after new cases were reported for the first time since the city’s lockdown lifted in April.

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