Chinese medical experts were concerned when they first encountered the novel coronavirus outbreak coming out of a Wuhan animal market in December 2019, but government officials put gag orders on them and destroyed early data, new reports indicate.
Several medical researchers warned the Chinese government that the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, had similarities to other deadly viruses like the SARS and MERS viruses. Rather than evaluate those findings and raise further alarm, China’s National Health Commission placed a gag order on researchers and ordered their samples destroyed, the New York Post reported in February.
On Wednesday, a compiled Axios timeline based on reporting from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and South China Morning Post presented an even fuller list of warnings by health officials and subsequent government responses that quashed valuable information.
On Dec. 10, Wei Guixian, a seafood merchant, checked into a local clinic after feeling sick. Wei was one of the first known cases of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Within weeks medical workers had suspected the virus was originating from the same animal market in which Wei worked.
On Dec. 30, Ai Fen, a director of emergency medicine at Wuhan Central Hospital, posted information about the mysterious new virus on the Chinese social media app WeChat, the Guardian reported. In an interview with the Chinese publication Renwu, Ai said she was called in two days later by the head of the hospital’s disciplinary inspection committee and reprimanded for “spreading rumours” and “harming stability.” Ai’s interview with Renwu was subsequently removed.
Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang also shared early information about the outbreak and was among eight doctors brought in for questioning by Chinese police and reprimanded for “spreading rumors.” Li eventually became sick with the coronavirus and died.
Between Jan. 11 and 17, as the Chinese Communist Party met for pre-planned internal meetings, during which time the Wuhan Health Commission reported no new coronavirus cases.
On Jan. 14, based on information provided by the Chinese government, the World Health Organization assessed there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
In late January, as cases began to emerge in several other countries, Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping began to publicly indicate his government was taking action to combat coronavirus. On Jan. 25 Xi said the virus was accelerating and placed 56 million people in lockdown.
The virus has grown throughout February and March and has now expanded to almost 250,000 cases and more than 10,000 deaths worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracking map.