Coronavirus: Chinese scientists raised alarm about virus in December but government told them to stay mum
A new report claims that China may have silenced scientists who had warned about the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, asking them to suppress evidence. This adds to growing reports that the government had suppressed information about the outbreak.
The report comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) showered praises on China's response to the outbreak: the virus is now responsible for over 3,000 deaths worldwide.
Scientists had spotted similarities between SARS and the new disease that had infected six patients in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, according to Caixin Global.
When experts informed the Chinese National Health Commission about these developments, they were reportedly asked to brush it under the carpet. What is more? Chinese authorities shut down a Shanghai-based lab after it shared information on the new virus. The lab which was closed for rectification on January 12, was the first to sequence the virus and publicly share it.
This information helped scientists all over the world, allowing them to develop testing kits while also opening up avenues for potential vaccines.
"The center was not given any specific reasons why the laboratory was closed for rectification. (We have submitted) four reports (asking for permission) to reopen but we have not received any replies," a source with the center told South China Morning Post.
"The closure has greatly affected the scientists and their research when they should be racing against the clock to find the means to help put the novel coronavirus outbreak under control," the source added.
The team informed the National Health Commission of its findings and that the then-unknown virus resembled those found in bats. But because the organization took no steps to warn the public, the team went ahead and shared the data with the world.
However, it is still unclear whether the publishing of the sequencing data had something to do with the lab closure.
Health authorities are powerless
China had alerted the WHO of a pneumonia-like illness circulating in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. Other studies have suggested that the virus may have been around since November.
"Chinese scientists had confirmed the new coronavirus on December 31. We managed to isolate the virus strains on January 3 and reported it on January 7 to the UN as well as the central and local centers for disease control," epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who helped identify the SARS virus in 2003, said at a press conference on February 27.
However, China began acting on the outbreak only after January 20, informing the public and locking down Wuhan and other affected cities. It took weeks for the public to learn about the new coronavirus. A five-day delay in controlling the virus would have potentially infected hundreds of thousands.
The delay was down to the fact that officials at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are kept on a tight leash. "Except for reporting to upper levels of authorities, the CDC has no power to make any decision for the next move," Zhong said, according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks. Only health administration agencies have the authority to declare an epidemic, he added.
China's damage control, though delayed, has helped a great deal — the outbreak in the country will be under control by the end of April, Zhong said.