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Wuhan leaks: Documents show China’s early, costly mistakes in handling COVID-19

China struggled to get timely test results; virus numbers may have been downplayed

People wearing face masks wait for a subway train in Wuhan | Reuters People wearing face masks wait for a subway train in Wuhan | Reuters

On December 1, as the world marked one year since the first known patient of the novel coronavirus became ill, a set of leaked documents accessed by CNN has revealed early lapses in China’s handling of the virus outbreak—and the possibility that the virus hit other cities besides Wuhan first.

The documents, leaked by a whistle-blower within the Chinese healthcare system, show, according to CNN, that an influenza epidemic 20 times that of the normal level was seen in the Hubei province around the time of the first recorded coronavirus cases, with the cities of Yichang and Xianning harder-hit than Wuhan, the city most commonly associated with the start of the virus.

“Yichang, 320 kilometers (198 miles) west of Wuhan, was hit hardest by the influenza outbreak—almost three times as many as Wuhan in the same week beginning December 2,” the report says.

While the documents don’t suggest the two outbreaks were linked, information about the magnitude of this influenza spike had not been made public. There is a possibility that it may have been a surge of undiagnosed COVID-19 cases.

The documents highlight what went on to become commonplace in how countries initially dealt with the virus: China struggled to test at scale or accurately in the initial days of the outbreak, taking up to three weeks to produce a test result in some cases. China initially used SARS testing kits from the previous outbreak of a SARS virus—which ended up yielding a multitude of false negative results. An alternate method that was devised nucleic acid tests, were still only 30-50 per cent effective at diagnosing confirmed cases—leading to repeated tests of the same cases as well as incorporating of another clinical diagnosis method—using CT scans that could identify the unique scarring COVID-19 cases to the lungs.

During the initial months, the average time taken to process and confirm a case was 23.3 days, CNN reported.

China, has long been accused of underreporting its COVID-19 cases. By February 10, while China officially declared 3,900 new COVID-19 cases in Hubei, the internal documents counting confirmed, suspected and clinically diagnosed (including patients who were seriously ill) cases, show at least a third more cases.

While the documents do not show an overt attempt to underreport the figure, they point to a chaotic effort by officials to downplay the numbers. However, China did later work to improve its reporting system and include clinically diagnosed cases in the confirmed category by mid-February.

On February 12, China reported a 600 per cent surge in the number of new cases with 15,152 new cases and 254 additional deaths—a spike attributed to a revised way of counting cases. Around the same time, AP reported that China was sacking officials including the ruling Communist Party chief in Hubei, the party secretary in Wuhan and early provincial health commission leaders as well as others after the public criticised local officials for their handling of the epidemic.

However, even by March, China was reporting different figures to the world than what its internal documents showed. On March 7, while Hubei’s total death toll was listed as 2,986, the internal report cites it as 3,456.

The report highlights bureaucratic inefficiencies that compounded China’s ability to handle the outbreak in its early days.

While the World Health Organisation has begun its investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, China has yet to earn international trust for its claims—and appears to be focusing efforts on blaming other nations for the outbreak. Chinese scientists have claimed India as a possible origin for the virus, and officials have even said that the US Army could have brought the virus to China during the 2019 war games in Wuhan.

Critics of the US claim that China caused the pandemic by mishandling and deliberately underreporting cases in the early days say the documents show there was no deliberate attempt to obfuscate data—but rather, that China faced the same struggles many other countries did when first presented with the threat of the unknown virus. 

Hopes for an independent investigation into the origins and cause of the pandemic will depend on the outcome of the World Health Organisation’s probe into the matter.

WHO researchers plan to study the Huanan seafood market initially thought to have been the origin of coronavirus—a claim later challenged after the index patient was found to have no exposure to the market. Since the virus is believed to have come from animals to humans, possibly through a wet market, the WHO will be investigating samples from wet markets across the region.

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