China confirms it destroyed early coronavirus samples but still denies US accusations of cover-up
China has admitted that it had destroyed coronavirus samples collected from patients in the early stages of the outbreak after the US accused the country of a cover-up. However, China maintains that it had a genuine reason to do so, denying accusations of a cover-up. It directed labs to destroy samples after learning they were not equipped to handle an infectious agent like SARS-CoV-2.
In late last year, unaware of the mysterious virus behind a cluster of pneumonia-like illnesses, hospitals sent patients samples to private labs to identify it. Soon, experts realized the coronavirus was highly pathogenic. Authorities ordered unequipped labs to dispose of samples, fearing a potential mishap or lab leakage, Liu Dengfeng, a supervisor at the science and education division of China's National Health Commission, reportedly said at a news conference on Friday.
“Based on comprehensive research and expert opinion, we decided to temporarily manage the pathogen causing pneumonia as Class II – highly pathogenic – and imposed biosafety requirements on sample collection, transport, and experimental activities, as well as destroying the samples,” he said.
Liu said China was only following protocols that required unauthorized labs to dispose of highly pathogenic samples.
These statements come after the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China was guilty of not disclosing information. "Even after the [Chinese Communist Party] did notify the World Health Organization (WHO) of the coronavirus outbreak, China didn’t share all of the information it had,” Mr Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday. “Instead it covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn’t report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month until it was in every province inside of China, it censored those who tried to warn the world in order to halt the testing of new samples, and it destroyed existing samples."
Reacting to the US accusations, Liu said: "The remarks disseminated by these US officials are purely out of context and intentionally confuse the audience." China informed the WHO about the outbreak on December 31. According to a report from a Chinese magazine, Caixin, private labs identified the virus behind the mystery illness was a coronavirus and was closely related to SARS. Following this, authorities directed one company to destroy all virus samples, the report said.
Defending itself, China also said it had not realized the scale of the outbreak until January 19, 2020. Once we did, we released information about it on the same day, Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, at a press briefing. Before that, Chinese scientists claim they were unsure about the contagiousness of the new virus though they knew it was capable of spreading between people. There are diseases like HIV, that while infectious, is not easily transmitted from person to person, he said.
The US and China are locked in a blame game amid the pandemic. China pointed fingers at how the US is struggling to manage the pandemic, as it leads the world in the number of infections. According to John Hopkins University, more than 1.46 million Americans have contracted the disease, and more than 88,000 people are now dead. The US, Australia and Germany have sought an investigation into the origins of the new coronavirus. From its inquiry, the US intelligence concluded that Covid-19 "was not manmade or genetically modified". In a statement, the intelligence agency said: "The [intelligence community] will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan."