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Report: China knew about coronavirus pandemic and exponential growth before warning public

China's President Xi Jinping. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)
April 15, 2020

As China faces increased scrutiny over its early handling of the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, questions have been raised about what they knew of the severity and transmissibility of the virus and when did they know. A new Associated Press report indicates Chinese officials discussed the potential of a pandemic even as the World Health Organization (WHO) reported “no clear evidence” of disease transmission.

The Associated Press reported that Chinese officials discussed human-to-human transmission of the virus and the threat of a pandemic during a secretive teleconference meeting in early January, yet waited six crucial days to warn the public. Leaked internal documents and retrospective infection data disclosed by Chinese disease control officials showed that 3,000 infection cases emerged during that six-day period of delay.

One public health official leaked documents from the secret teleconference meeting to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retribution for the disclosures.

A section from the discussion was titled “sober understanding of the situation” and said “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible” and that the coronavirus situation had “changed significantly.”

The memo continued to warn of the potential for disease spread as millions traveled for the upcoming Lunar New Year and Spring Festival celebrations and said, “All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.”

A Chinese official eventually warned the public about human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20, Quartz reported.

During the period of delay, WHO repeated claims by Chinese health officials that did not acknowledge evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the information Chinese officials had could have made a significant difference in the spread of the disease.

“If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient,” he said. “We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”

Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, suggested the delay and the hesitance of medical professionals to not speak up about the virus was due to fear over potential repercussions. “Doctors in Wuhan were afraid. It was truly intimidation of an entire profession.”

The six-day delay also coincided with a nearly two week period from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17 in which health officials recorded no new coronavirus cases, even as hundreds of patients were appearing in hospitals across the country.

One study from the UK-based University of Southampton suggests community mitigation efforts such as social-distancing could have reduced coronavirus cases by 66 percent, 86 percent, and 95 percent, if they had been taken one week, two weeks or three weeks earlier on, respectively.

“Allegations of a cover-up or lack of transparency in China are groundless,” Lijian Zhao, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said in a press conference last week that. Lijian previously made his own suggestion that the coronavirus was brought to China by the U.S. Army.

“They may not have said the right thing, but they were doing the right thing,” said Ray Yip, the retired founding head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s office in China. “On the 20th, they sounded the alarm for the whole country, which is not an unreasonable delay.”