BEIJING – It’s been more than two months since Dec. 12, the day doctors first noticed a Chinese patient display symptoms of the highly infectious coronavirus that has claimed more than 2,100 lives across the globe. In the weeks following that early case, authorities missed one chance after another to contain the outbreak.
The censorship on Jan. 1 of eight doctors who tried to issue an early warning has become a lightning rod for public anger over the government’s slow initial response. But it’s now emerged that there were at least four other key moments in which authorities could’ve slowed the spread of the virus had they acted more quickly to educate the public and limit travel and mass gatherings.
Even after the first death from the pathogen on Jan. 9, Chinese officials continued to assure the public the virus wasn’t serious and the situation was under control. The virus has now infected more than 75,000 people, devastating the 60 million people of Hubei province and closing large parts of China’s economy.
Here are four opportunities China missed to stem the spread of the virus in the crucial first month after it was first observed in a patient.
Dec. 26: SARS-like virus found
After cases began emerging in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, Chinese scientists began studying the new disease. On Dec. 26, preliminary genetic sequencing data indicated the presence of a coronavirus related to severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to a commentary paper in the Lancet medical journal published on Feb. 11.
It took 17 days before Chinese researchers alerted their peers around the world to the new pathogen by posting the genome sequence, which is needed to develop test kits that can identify the virus in patients.
The Lancet stressed that the delay didn’t indicate an intentional cover-up, but highlighted the absence of mechanisms available globally to inform outbreak warning systems.
Jan 3: Transmission concerns
The Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention began monitoring close contacts of infected patients in Wuhan on Jan. 3, according to a paper its researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Jan. 29, a sign that human-to-human transmission was a concern by early January.
The paper itself concluded that human-to-human transmission had begun among close contacts in mid-December.
Yet on Jan. 5, the Wuhan government said the illness didn’t appear to be spreading from human to human. But on Jan. 15, the municipal health commission said it wasn’t ruling that out, citing a family cluster among the 41 cases reported at the time.
China only confirmed human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20, after the virus had already spread to Thailand and Japan. After the Jan. 29 paper prompted some public backlash, China’s CDC said it was based on “retrospective inference” of data from 425 cases, which had already been made public.
Jan. 7: Xi issues internal order
Chinese President Xi Jinping said he ordered top leaders on Jan. 7 to contain the epidemic, according to the transcript of a speech he delivered on Feb. 3 that was made public on Feb. 15. State media reports from Jan. 7 don’t include any remarks from Xi on the epidemic.
Xi said he personally gave the order on Jan. 22 to quarantine more than 60 million people in Hubei province, 15 days after he first discussed the outbreak with the Politburo Standing Committee, the body comprising China’s seven most powerful leaders. A travel ban was imposed in Wuhan at 10 a.m. on Jan. 23, barring people from leaving the city. Its mayor, who kept his job in a recent purge, later said about 5 million people had already left the city by that point.
Still, the fact Xi was giving directives on containing the virus almost two weeks before he made his first public statement on the issue raises questions about why China’s top officials waited so long to take decisive action.
Jan 9: New virus confirmed
On Jan. 9, Chinese state television confirmed that the mysterious pneumonia outbreak that had already sickened dozens in Wuhan was caused by a previously unidentified coronavirus, the same family of viruses that include SARS, MERS-CoV and the common flu. Coronaviruses vary in severity and some can be easily transmitted from human to human, while others can’t.
That week, the central government continued to reassure the public that the virus wasn’t serious, with prominent government respiratory expert Wang Guangfa saying that the illness was “preventable and controllable” and that symptoms were “mild.” It was later confirmed he was infected with the virus, and he said on Jan. 22 he suspected he caught it through his eyes.
On Jan. 18, the Wuhan government hosted a Chinese New Year dinner for more than 40,000 families. The mayor defended the decision on Jan. 21 by saying there was limited evidence of human-to-human transmission at the time.
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