[News] No, China did not “Stall” Critical Covid Information at Outbreak’s Start

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Oct 18 13:20:37 EDT 2020

China did not “Stall” Critical Covid Information at Outbreak’s Start

By Joshua Cho – Oct 15, 2020

FAIR (6/21/20) has criticized various conspiracy theories propagated by
corporate media alleging a coverup of crucial information regarding the
Covid-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese
government, as well as the notion (FAIR.org, 4/17/20, 10/6/20) that
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid, emerged from a Chinese lab.
Now that some time has passed since the beginning of the outbreak, it’s
worth revisiting the less-conspiratorial corporate media narrative that the
Chinese government maliciously or incompetently delayed the release of
critical information early on, thereby causing many unnecessary deaths.
[image: AP: China delayed releasing coronavirus info, frustrating
Press (6/3/20) claimed China “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome,
of the virus for more than a week,” and that “Chinese government labs only
released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on
a virologist website on January 11.” In fact, a Chinese researcher uploaded
the genome to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information on
January 5 (Time, 8/24/20).

While many other news outlets (e.g., New York Times, 2/7/20; Vox, 2/10/20)
have accused the Chinese government of covering up the severity of the
pandemic in its initial stages and delaying the release of crucial
information, the Associated Press has been promoting this narrative with
particular intensity. Its report, “China Delayed Releasing Coronavirus
Info, Frustrating WHO” (6/3/20), claimed that World Health Organization
“officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more
information out of the government,” based on unreleased private recordings
of WHO officials complaining that China wasn’t “sharing enough data” in
internal meetings. Amid various conspiracy theories peddled by US media of
the WHO colluding with China to conceal Covid-19’s severity, AP alleged
that its findings support the narrative of an agency “stuck in the middle
that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limited authority.”

A separate AP report on June 3 report alleged “significant delays by China
in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak that compromised the WHO’s
understanding of how the disease was spreading.” China, the news service
claimed, “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for
more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded
the information,” which “stalled the recognition of its spread to other
countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines.”

AP reported that the first complete genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was
published by Chinese virologist Zhang Yongzhen’s team to the public
database virological.org on January 11, six days after they completed the
task on January 5; the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) Shi Zhengli had
finished sequencing the genome on January 2, according to a notice on the
WIV’s website. But AP’s reporting presented Chinese stalling as an
incontrovertible fact rather than a debatable opinion, burying the views of
scientists who disagreed with that assessment in the 73rd and 74th

*Some scientists say the wait was not unreasonable considering the
difficulties in sequencing unknown pathogens, given accuracy is as
important as speed. They point to the SARS outbreak in 2003 when some
Chinese scientists initially—and wrongly—believed the source of the
epidemic was chlamydia.*

*“The pressure is intense in an outbreak to make sure you’re right,” said
Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealthAlliance in New York. “It’s
actually worse to go out to go to the public with a story that’s wrong
because the public completely lose confidence in the public health
[image: Time: The Chinese Scientist Who Sequenced the First COVID-19 Genome
Speaks Out About the Controversies Surrounding His Work]Time (8/24/20):
“Crises beget scapegoats, and the coronavirus is no different.”

AP’s narrative was later debunked by an exclusive interview Zhang gave to
Time magazine (8/24/20). He revealed that he had uploaded the completed
genomic sequence on January 5 (the same day his team finished) to the US
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is corroborated
by the submission date listed on the open access US government Genbank.

AP seemed to downplay whether Chinese officials had any reasonable public
health concerns for not taking stricter measures sooner, and to suggest
that waiting for more evidence or confirmation was mere stalling (e.g.,
“China stalled for at least two weeks more…”). The wire service implied
that the Chinese government messed up “sharing the information with the
world,” citing an earlier report by Caixin Global (2/29/20), a Chinese
corporate media outlet, that made it seem like the Chinese government was
trying to conceal the novel coronavirus when it first reported on a
confidential “gag order” by the National Health Commission.

The order commanded private genomics companies to destroy or transfer
“Wuhan pneumonia samples” to “approved testing facilities” on January 3.
Time also cited the gag order, and the repeatedly debunked myth of silenced
“whistleblower doctors,” as evidence that the “stakes of doing what is
right over what one is told are rendered far higher in authoritarian
systems like China’s,” even as Zhang denied Western media reports of his
lab suffering prolonged closure during the pandemic.

Completely omitted by Time and Caixin’s reports is the fact that under
Chinese law, private genomics companies aren’t authorized to handle highly
contagious pathogens, which is a standard public safety measure (South
China Morning Post, 5/15/20; Wall Street Journal, 5/16/20); many
governments, including the US, have regulations that require labs with
lower biosafety ratings to destroy or transfer samples of dangerous

Caixin’s report also omitted that the Chinese government had notified the
WHO and the US CDC on January 3 about their discovery of a potentially new
coronavirus—the same day the “gag order” was issued—even as it noted that
the WHO received information from China about a mysterious pneumonia
outbreak on December 31. These are very strange things to do if the Chinese
government really were trying to “throttle” and conceal news of the
outbreak. It’s unclear whether the WIV was really ordered to destroy
samples of the virus, as Caixin initially reported by citing an anonymous
virologist; Zhengli denied ever receiving orders to destroy samples after
the outbreak.

AP’s report also framed Chinese officials initially setting strict criteria
for confirming new cases of Covid-19 as having “censored doctors who warned
of suspicious cases,” when few new cases were reported between January 5
and January 16 (AP, 1/28/20), even as it mentioned later that Chinese
officials and health professionals lacked a “full understanding of how
widely the virus was spreading and who was at risk.” The article noted that
Chinese officials were debating whether Covid-19 had limited or sustained
human-to-human transmission before renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan
confirmed there was sustained human-to-human transmission on January 20;
China ordered the quarantine of Wuhan only days later, on January 23.

Debate wasn’t unreasonable at the beginning of the outbreak—when it was
unclear how infectious or deadly Covid-19 was—as the first known death
didn’t occur until January 9, in a 61-year-old man with comorbidities. It
wasn’t until January 26 that the Chinese National Health Commission
announced that researchers believed the incubation period for
SARS-CoV-2—the time it takes for an infected person to develop
symptoms—could range from one to 14 days, during which asymptomatic
carriers could still infect others, unlike the SARS virus in the 2003
outbreak (BBC, 1/26/20). Other international outbreaks, like bird flu
viruses and MERS, turned out to have limited human-to-human transmission,
with scattered human-to-human transmission primarily triggered by
animal-to-human transmission (Stat, 1/21/20).
[image: CNN: China's changed how it counts virus cases three times now.
Here's why]CNN‘s Bianco Nobilo (2/21/20) interviewing Laurie Garrett. CNN
reported calls to treat China’s numbers skeptically, “given the
government’s track record of suppressing information about this epidemic.”

Nor is it unreasonable to revise the criteria to count new Covid-19 cases
upon getting new information and improved testing capacity in real time. By
late February, CNN (2/21/20) reported that China had already revised its
methodology of counting new cases three times in order to broaden their
case definition to include more cases, not fewer, but while plenty of other
countries were doing the same thing, only China’s revisions were singled
out and framed as a “cover-up.”

China taking the time to discuss and confirm whether there was sustained
human-to-human transmission was also condemned by the AP in an earlier
report, “China Didn’t Warn Public of Likely Pandemic for Six Key Days”
(4/15/20), which also accused the Chinese government of concealing the
virus from the Chinese public during the critical time period of January 14
to January 20:

*That delay from January 14 to January 20 was neither the first mistake
made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor
the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet
for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.*

*But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a
critical time—the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line
between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic
that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 133,000

This story was based on blatant and easily disprovable falsehoods. Chinese
state media warned the public of a “new type of coronavirus” multiple times
before this supposed “critical time,” as Beijing-based journalist Ian
Goodrum pointed out on Twitter (4/15/20).

RELATED CONTENT: The Difference Between the US and China’s Response to
COVID-19 is Staggering

As I also pointed out earlier (FAIR.org, 3/6/20), soon after Dr. Zhang
Jixian was the first doctor to report the novel coronavirus to health
authorities on December 27, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission
made announcements on December 30 and December 31. This is why various
foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; Japan Times, 12/31/19;
Medical Xpress, 12/31/19) picked up on China’s announcement and were able
to report on this supposedly “secret” information in real time. The health
commission’s media statements were also picked up by other institutions,
like the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research
and Policy (12/31/19), Hong Kong’s government (12/31/19), the World Health
Organization’s Country Office in China (12/31/19) and the US-based
International Society for Infectious Diseases (12/30/19).

AP’s own reporting (1/15/20) also disproves the notion that the Chinese
government wasn’t warning the public, as both Chinese and WHO officials
urged the public not to rule out the possibility of sustained
human-to-human transmission during this time period, and were already
keeping patients isolated, since that’s a standard precaution for novel
pathogens (Guardian, 4/9/20).

AP’s January 15 report was published before official announcements on
SARS-CoV-2’s incubation period and capacity for asymptomatic transmission,
and noted that the reason Chinese officials claimed the risk of sustained
human-to-human transmission remained low was that “there remains no
definitive evidence of human-to-human transmission,” as it appeared at the
time that “hundreds of people” have “been in close contact with infected
individuals” without themselves being infected. However, omitting the
crucial distinction between limited and sustained human-to-human
transmission may have given the misleading impression that Chinese
officials were denying that any human-to-human transmission was occurring
at all (Scientific American, 1/24/20).
[image: AP: China didn’t warn public of likely pandemic for 6 key days]AP
(4/15/20) criticized China for a “public silence” on the coronavirus that
ended January 20—though a January 15 AP piece led with Chinese officials
warning that “the possibility that a new virus in central China could
spread between humans cannot be ruled out.”

AP’s April 15 report also admitted that China had a real dilemma. If China
had announced early on that there was sustained human-to-human transmission
without waiting for evidence to confirm their claim and got it right, many
lives would have been saved. On the other hand, AP noted that if health
officials “raise the alarm prematurely,” it would “damage their
credibility” and “cripple their ability to mobilize the public.” Yet AP’s
coverage throughout the pandemic has consistently framed following
scientific procedure by taking the time to confirm new information as
needless “delays” or deliberate “stalling.”

Could China have done better and acted faster? While the Chinese government
admitted that their response had “shortcomings and deficiencies,” it’s a
nebulous question, because one can always conceive retrospectively of
numerous ways pandemic responses could have been improved. There are no
definitive guidelines for how soon a government should release critical
information like a novel pathogen’s genomic sequence, or whether it’s
capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, because every pandemic
situation differs widely. The most insightful ways to assess a country’s
pandemic response is to compare it with their responses to previous
pandemics, and to compare their current response with other countries’
approaches in the real world, instead of playing with simulations
(FAIR.org, 3/17/20), or comparing China’s response with some abstract ideal
where everything was handled perfectly.

Even the above condemnatory reports cited numerous health professionals
pointing out that China’s approach is more accurately described as
“appropriate verification.” To “actually have the whole genome sequence by
early January was outstanding compared to outbreaks of the past,” Time
(8/24/20) acknowledged, while admitting that there was “some historical
basis for skepticism” about the severity of the novel pathogen. The WHO was
condemned, for example, for being hasty and overdramatic for declaring the
2009 swine flu outbreak a pandemic when the virology didn’t warrant it
(Science, 1/14/10).

AP’s April report (4/15/20) was based on a study that claimed that cases
could have been reduced by up to two-thirds if the Chinese government had
taken stricter public health measures a week earlier. However, the report
omitted that the study was trying to assess the effectiveness of various
“non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs), instead of trying to criticize
China. It concluded that China’s NPIs “appear to be effectively containing
the Covid-19 outbreak,” and estimated that Covid-19 cases would “likely
have shown a 67-fold increase” without China’s NPIs. But presenting the
study’s actual findings accurately would ruin the basis for AP’s hit piece.
Independent and prestigious medical journals like Science (5/8/20), Nature
(5/4/20) and the Lancet (3/7/20, 7/25/20) also hailed China’s response and
credited it for saving lives by preventing hundreds of thousands, if not
millions, of cases (CGTN, 5/10/20).
[image: WaPo: China’s coronavirus lockdown — brought to you by
authoritarianism]Outlets like the Washington Post (1/27/20) condemned
China’s effective measures to halt the Covid-19 outbreak as

China’s early, unprecedented and large-scale quarantine of Wuhan was the
biggest signal it could’ve sent to the rest of the world that it was
containing a serious problem; it was widely dismissed and condemned as
“authoritarian” by US media at the time. “China’s Coronavirus Lockdown —
Brought to You by Authoritarianism,” a Washington Post headline (1/27/20)
declared. The Atlantic (1/24/20) called the Chinese response “a radical
experiment in authoritarian medicine,” suggesting that “part of the fear
and panic in the current case seems less due to the virus than to the
response”; Slate (1/24/20) asserted, “Violating People’s Rights Is Not the
Way to Address the Coronavirus.”

US media could revisit those dismissals, to explore whether earlier
information from China would have made any difference, as countries like
the US didn’t act on the information it already had from China, and
squandered precious preparation time by lying to the public, censoring,
covering up cases and preventing adequate supplies from reaching medical

It is easy for US media to dutifully follow US government directives to
propagate the myth of Chinese “coverups” and “delays” by retroactively
projecting current knowledge of Covid-19 onto China during the initial
phase of the outbreak (MintPress News, 5/18/20; Foreign Policy, 7/30/20).
However, the more difficult questions of why the US’s pandemic response has
been exceptionally bad, as a result of its capitalist system prioritizing
profits over people (FAIR.org, 4/1/20, 4/15/20, 5/1/20), and US imperialism
preventing cooperation with China and the rest of the world (FAIR.org,
7/28/20), would be more worthwhile.

*Joshua Cho (@JoshC0301) is a writer based in Virginia.*


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