Coronavirus China: WHO expert says virus was 'widespread' in December

WHO scientist who led Wuhan Covid probe reveals disease ‘was circulating widely’ and had mutated at least 13 times before Beijing reported it to the world

  • Peter Embarek, lead WHO researcher in Wuhan, has revealed virus was circulating ‘widely’ in December 2019
  • He also revealed 13 variants were found among early cases, suggesting disease was in humans for some time
  • Embarek stopped short of saying disease was circulating before December, but called for further research 
  • Comes less than a week after Embarek told a press conference in China that there is no evidence the virus was circulating ‘in Wuhan or elsewhere’ before December 

A scientist who led the WHO’s Covid fact-finding mission to Wuhan has revealed the first evidence that the virus was circulating widely in China before Beijing alerted the world to its existence.

Peter Embarek said his team have discovered there were at least 13 Covid variants in Wuhan in December last year, suggesting the virus had been in the human population for some time for these different strains to develop.

He also revealed that up to 1,000 people in Wuhan could have been infected in early December – an estimate based on Chinese data that showed 174 severe cases of the disease at that point.

Embarek stopped short of saying the virus was circulating in China before December, but also called on the Chinese to give his investigators access to more data including blood samples from Wuhan for further study.

‘The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, this is a new finding,’ he told CNN after returning to Europe following the investigation.

Peter Embarek, lead researcher for WHO in Wuhan, is pictured at a press conference announcing the results of his team’s investigation last week

Dr Embarek said his team has ruled out the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured), saying such a leak is ‘extremely unlikely’ and should not be investigated further

Did coronavirus originate in Chinese government laboratory? 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been collecting numerous coronaviruses from bats ever since the SARS outbreak in 2002.

They have also published papers describing how these bat viruses have interacted with human cells.

US Embassy staff visited the lab in 2018 and ‘had grave safety concerns’ over the protocols which were being observed at the facility.

The lab is just eight miles from the Huanan wet market which is where the first cluster of infections erupted in Wuhan.

The market is just a few hundred yards from another lab called the Wuhan Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (WHCDC).

The WHCDC kept disease-ridden animals in its labs, including some 605 bats.

Those who support the theory argue that Covid-19 could have leaked from either or both of these facilities and spread to the wet market.

Most argue that this would have been a virus they were studying rather than one which was engineered.

Last year a bombshell paper from the Beijing-sponsored South China University of Technology recounted how bats once attacked a researcher at the WHCDC and ‘blood of bat was on his skin.’ 

The report says: ‘Genome sequences from patients were 96% or 89% identical to the Bat CoV ZC45 coronavirus originally found in Rhinolophus affinis (intermediate horseshoe bat).’

It describes how the only native bats are found around 600 miles away from the Wuhan seafood market and that the probability of bats flying from Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces was minimal.

In addition there is little to suggest the local populace eat the bats as evidenced by testimonies of 31 residents and 28 visitors.

Instead the authors point to research being carried out within 300 yards at the WHCDC.

One of the researchers at the WHCDC described quarantining himself for two weeks after a bat’s blood got on his skin, according to the report. That same man also quarantined himself after a bat urinated on him.

And he also mentions discovering a live tick from a bat – parasites known for their ability to pass infections through a host animal’s blood.

‘The WHCDC was also adjacent to the Union Hospital (Figure 1, bottom) where the first group of doctors were infected during this epidemic.’ The report says.

‘It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study.’  

Prof. Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney, Australia, said: ‘As there was already genetic diversity in SARS-CoV-2 sequences sampled from Wuhan in December 2019, it is likely that the virus was circulating for a while longer than that month alone.’  

The new evidence appears to contradict statements Embarek made just last week while still in China, when he insisted that there is no evidence of transmission ‘in Wuhan or elsewhere’ before December 2019.

Dr Embarek has now revealed that his team were given access to just 92 patient records from across Hubei province dated before December 2019 which showed possible evidence of a Covid infection.

Of those, 67 agreed to be tested for Covid antibodies – which shows whether a person has previously been infected by the virus – and all tested negative.

However, Embarek said more testing needs to be done because it is possible that Covid antibodies had disappeared from those patients before they were re-tested, more than a year later.

Specifically, he called on authorities in Beijing to give his team access to 200,000 blood samples sitting in a blood bank in Wuhan and which date back two years so they can be tested for antibodies.

The samples will provide a snap-shot of what was in a patient’s system at the time the blood was taken, meaning any Covid antibodies would still be visible to researchers.

Similar studies on blood samples carried out in Europe have discovered evidence of Covid infections dating as far back as September 2019, raising the prospect that the disease was circulating for months before China first reported it to the WHO.

Beijing has seized on the findings to suggest it is evidence that the virus actually started outside its borders, though a majority of experts still believe China was the source. 

Outlining the findings of his team’s month-long fact-finding mission last week, Dr Embarek said the team had failed to establish where the virus came from or how it first jumped into humans. Instead, he said the team had come up with four theories about its origins. 

He said the most likely explanation is that the virus passed from its original host animal into an intermediary animal that comes into close contact with humans, before making the leap into people.

Intermediary animals could include frozen or chilled animal products sold at markets in Wuhan, including those imported from overseas, he said, outlining his second theory.

The next most-likely theory is that the virus jumped directly from its original host into humans, Dr Embarek said, putting forward bats as a likely source.

But, he said, humans and bats do not come into close contact in Wuhan and swabs of bats and various other animal species in China – including wild animals, pets, and farm animals – has failed to find the original source.

Dr Embarek called for more research to be carried out into all three of these theories, and said teams should be looking outside as well as inside of China’s borders.

The only theory he rejected out-of-hand was that the virus had leaked from a lab, saying such an event was ‘extremely unlikely’. 

Dr Liang Wannian, the head of China’s Wuhan research team, further agreed – claiming that there is no evidence that Covid was present at any facility in China before appearing in humans.

If the virus was not present in a lab before the outbreak then it could not have escaped, he said.

Dr Wannian instead pushed the theory – which has become prevalent in China in recent weeks – that frozen food could have been the source, saying his research shows Covid can survive for a long time at low temperatures.

This means that the virus could have travelled long distances to reach Wuhan, he added, without specifically saying that it came from overseas.

He further revealed that Huanan Seafood Market – the market where the first cluster of Covid cases was detected – was not the only market in the city to be hit by the infection.

‘While some of the early cases had close association with Huanan Seafood Market, others were associated with other markets,’ he said, ‘and other cases have no market association at all.

‘It is likely that Huanan Market acted as focus for virus transmission, but the virus was also transmitted elsewhere at the same time. It is not possible on basis of current information to establish how the virus was introduced into Hunan market.’

In fact, he claimed, the earliest confirmed case of Covid in Wuhan – which occurred on December 8 – had no connection to any market within the city. 

He added that samples taken from early cases at Huanan market showed slight variations in the virus, implying that it had been present in humans for an unknown length of time before causing those infections.

Dr Embarek agreed, saying that the market played a role in the early spread but that it has not be possible to establish how the virus got into the market or how it spread through it. 

Putting forward other explanations for how the virus crossed into humans, Dr Wannian suggested that cats could have acted as an intermediary animal after cases were reported in felines around the world.

He also pointed to Covid infections in mink as evidence of another host animal, rather than bats or pangolins – both animals which are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and cooking.   

He added that tens of thousands of PCR tests have been conducted on animals around China since the initial outbreak, including on domestically farmed animals, wild animals, and pets. All of the tests were negative, he said.

Marion Koopmans, another WHO scientist who was part of the team in China, further suggested that a rabbit, a bamboo rat or a ferret badger could have acted as the intermediary because all are susceptible to coronaviruses and some were present at the Huanan market in Wuhan. 

The WHO mission has been fraught from the start, first beset by delays and roadblocks thrown up by the Chinese government, and then later by claims that scientists were being fed little more than propaganda by Beijing authorities.  

Facebook Covid ‘misinformation’ crackdown sparks freedom of speech fears 

Facebook will crack down on ‘misinformation’ about Covid-19, including claims that coronavirus was man-made, the tech giant has announced, sparking freedom of speech fears.

The news comes despite the outbreak’s source still not being identified, and after WHO scientists researching the origins of Covid in China said it is ‘extremely unlikely’ the virus leaked from a lab.

Facebook said that it has banned misinformation about all vaccines in a blog post on Monday, after years of controversy over the company’s perceived inaction.

Some of the claims that Facebook said it would be clamping down on includes unproven claims that Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured and that vaccines cause autism or have other harmful effects.

Claims that vaccines are not effective against preventing disease and that it is safer to get the disease than to get a vaccine have also been banned from the platform. 

Posts making such claims will be removed from the website, as well as Facebook-owned Instagram, the company said in the post that came with a list of ‘misinformation’ it was banning from its platforms.

But Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, expressed the need for Facebook to be cautious, saying there is a fine line between misinformation and content expressing people’s genuine concerns.

‘Facebook need to take action, but will inevitably make mistakes. They were recently told by their Oversight Board to reinstate a post relating to the COVID outbreak that was wrongly removed,’ Mr Killock told the MailOnline.

‘There is always a fine line between material that seeks to deceive, and people expressing legitimate concerns about their health. Facebook need to reassure the public that their rights to criticise and examine Government health policy will not be swept away by careless moderators.’

The ban has taken effect immediately, with Facebook saying it is paying particular attention to ‘Pages, groups and accounts that violate these rules’.

Facebook added that it will be expanding its efforts to stop the spread of what it deems misinformation in the coming weeks.

‘There’s still a long road ahead, and in 2021 we’re focused on supporting health leaders and public officials in their work to vaccinate billions of people against COVID-19,’ Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health, said in a statement. 

The experts spent one month in China, two weeks in quarantine, and then just two weeks on actual fieldwork.

Journalists were kept at arms’ length during the visit while no official itinerary was published – and what little information did leak out was not promising.

For example, it was revealed that scientists spent just an hour at the Huanan Seafood Market but found time to visit  a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery from the pandemic. 

They also appeared to spend several days inside their hotel receiving visits from various Chinese officials without going out into the city.

Deeper research was carried out at the Wuhan virology institute where they spent nearly four hours and said they met with Chinese scientists there including Shi Zhengli, one of China’s leading experts on bat coronaviruses and deputy director of the Wuhan lab.

Former US president Donald Trump repeated a controversial theory that a lab leak may have been the source of the pandemic.

Scientists at the laboratory conduct research on some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, including strains of bat coronaviruses similar to Covid-19.

Beijing is desperate to defang criticism of its handling of the chaotic early stages of the outbreak.

It has refocused attention at home – and abroad – on its handling of, and recovery from the outbreak.

Meanwhile an AP investigation has found that the Chinese government put limits on research into the outbreak and prevented scientists from speaking to reporters.

The WHO team’s mission is intended to be an initial step delving into the origins of the virus, which is believed to have originated in bats before being passed to humans through another species of wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, which is considered an exotic delicacy by some in China.

Transmission through the trade in frozen products has emerged as a recent theory and has since become prevalent in China, and it appears WHO investigators also leaned towards the possibility.

Another member of the WHO team told The Associated Press late last week that they enjoyed a greater level of openness than they had anticipated, and that they were granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested.

That expert, British-born zoologist Peter Daszak, said the team looked into issues including what the first cases were, the link with animals and what, if any, the role that imports of frozen food may have played – a theory that China has long put forward.

The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to resist calls for a strictly independent investigation.

While China has weathered some localized resurgences of infection since getting the outbreak under control last year, life in Wuhan itself has largely returned to normal.

Summing up his time in China, Dr Embarek concluded: ‘It was fascinating to realise that these people are not holding very exciting clues.

‘When we talked to one of first cases, you immediately think they must have some very special habits, hiking in mountains, keeping wild pets at home, instead you realise they are very much like us – spending days on the internet, same jobs, activities and sports as many of us do. 

‘Illustrating how complicated this work is, it is not possible to come up with all answers after a few weeks of study. 

‘This needs to be done in a systematic way, building bit by bit to get answers, that is what we will continue to do with our Chinese colleagues.’

The WHO findings will be a PR coup for Beijing and leader Xi Jingping (pictured shaking hands with WHO leader Dr Tedros) with diplomats repeatedly jumping on any evidence that the pandemic which has blighted the world did not start in China

Chinese scientists and officials have been keen to point the finger of blame outside their own borders – variously suggesting that the virus could have originated in Bangladesh, the US, Greece, Australia, India, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia or Serbia  

Multiple countries have uncovered evidence that the virus was circulating months earlier than originally thought. While Beijing has tried to insist this proves the virus originated elsewhere, most scientists still think China was the origin – raising the prospect that communist officials simply hid evidence of the early spread

China’s official timeline vs new evidence

Official timeline 

Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection

Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation

Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection

Jan 11 – China reported its first death 

Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down

Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases

Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West 

New evidence 

Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus

Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus  

Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present

Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus  

Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date

Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing 

Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities 

Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city

China lab leak is the ‘most credible’ source of the coronavirus outbreak, says top US government official, amid bombshell claims Wuhan scientist has turned whistleblower 

Abul Taher, Security Correspondent for the Mail on Sunday  

One of America’s most senior government officials says the most ‘credible’ theory about the origin of coronavirus is that it escaped from a laboratory in China.

Matthew Pottinger, who is President Donald Trump’s respected Deputy National Security Adviser, told politicians from around the world that even China’s leaders now openly admit their previous claims that the virus originated in a Wuhan market are false.

Mr Pottinger said that the latest intelligence points to the virus leaking from the top-secret Wuhan Institute of Virology, 11 miles from the market, saying: ‘There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus.’

Matthew Pottinger, who is President Donald Trump’s respected Deputy National Security Adviser, says the most ‘credible’ theory about the origin of coronavirus is that it escaped from from the top-secret Wuhan Institute of Virology in China

 He claimed the pathogen may have escaped through a ‘leak or an accident’, adding: ‘Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story.’

The comments, which were made during a Zoom conference with MPs on China last week, come as a team of experts from the World Health Organisation prepare to fly to Wuhan to investigate how the pandemic began.

Critics fear the probe will be a whitewash given China’s influence on the WHO.

‘MPs around the world have a moral role to play in exposing the WHO investigation as a Potemkin exercise,’ Mr Pottinger told the parliamentarians, in reference to the fake villages created in the Crimea in the 18th Century, intended to convince the visiting Russian Empress Catherine the Great that the region was in good health.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory Party leader who attended the meeting, said Mr Pottinger’s comments represented a ‘stiffening’ of the US position on the theory that the virus came from a leak at the laboratory, amid reports that the Americans are talking to a whistleblower from the Wuhan institute.

‘I was told the US have an ex-scientist from the laboratory in America at the moment,’ he said. ‘That was what I heard a few weeks ago.

‘I was led to believe this is how they have been able to stiffen up their position on how this outbreak originated.’

He added that Beijing’s refusal to allow journalists to visit the laboratory only served to increase suspicion that it was ‘ground zero’ for the pandemic.

Mr Pottinger (left) told politicians from around the world that even China’s leaders now openly admit their previous claims that the virus originated in a Wuhan market are false.

‘The truth is there are people who have been in those labs who maintain that this is the case,’ he said.

‘We don’t know what they have been doing in that laboratory.

‘They may well have been fiddling with bat coronaviruses and looking at them and they made a mistake. I’ve spoken to various people who believe that to be the case.’

Sam Armstrong, communications director at the Henry Jackson Society foreign policy think-tank, said: ‘With such a senior and respected intelligence official speaking in support of this claim, the time has come for the British Government to seek both answers about and compensation for Covid-19.’

Mr Pottinger, who speaks fluent Mandarin, previously worked as a journalist for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, including seven years as its China correspondent.

In 2005, he became a US marine and served as a military intelligence officer before being asked to join the US National Security Council in 2017, becoming Asia director before assuming his current role.

His older brother, Paul, is a virologist at the University of Washington.

President Trump last year accused the WHO of being a ‘puppet of China’ and withdrew funding.

The visit to Wuhan by the WHO team is already mired in controversy after it published terms of reference revealing it will not investigate the Wuhan institute – the only laboratory in China with the highest international bio-security grading – as a possible source of Covid-19. 

WHO’s ‘China-centric’ chief is a career politician who worked for a Communist junta and became the first NON-doctor Director-General ‘following intense lobbying from Beijing’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a little-known figure before the coronavirus pandemic, has risen to prominence as Director-General of the World Health Organisation which is spearheading global responses to the virus.

Dr Tedros – who has never practised as a medical doctor – is a career politician who was born in what is now Eritrea, began work under the Communist Derg junta, came to study in the UK, then rose to the top of Ethiopia’s government first as Health Minister and then Foreign Minister before being elected to lead the WHO in 2017.

He has faced heavy criticism over his handling of the pandemic, especially for praise he heaped on China’s communist party for its response – hailing the regime’s ‘commitment to transparency’ and saying the speed with which it detected the virus was ‘beyond words’.

That has led to allegations – including by Donald Trump – that the WHO is ‘China-centric’, and prompted Trump to pull US funding to the UN body.

It was not the first time that Dr Tedros has been accused of cosying up to China. Shortly after his election victory in 2017, it was alleged that Chinese diplomats had been heavily involved in lobbying for him.

UN records also show that Chinese contributions to both Ethiopia’s aid budget and the WHO have substantially increased during times when he was in top leadership positions.

Dr Tedros (left) became the first African head of the WHO and the first non-medical doctor to hold the role when he was elected in 2017, amid allegations of heavy lobbying by China (pictured, Dr Tedros in Beijing shortly after his election)

Shortly after his election to the WHO, a report in The Times said: ‘Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for the Ethiopian, using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.’

Dr Tedros – who is married and has five children – was born in 1965 in Asmara, which was part of Ethiopia at the time but is now in Eritrea. 

As a child he saw his younger brother die to an infection, which he believes was measles, which he later said spurred his determination to work on health and health policy.

He graduated from university in Ethiopia in 1986 with a degree in biology and went to work as a health official in the regime of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, while the country was ruled by the Derg military junta.

According to the BBC, Dr Tedros then joined the hard-left TPLF – which started life as a Communist party and played a major role in overthrowing Mariam in 1991. It later became part of the EPRDF, a coalition of left-wing parties that ruled Ethiopia until last year.

Around the same time as Mariam’s ouster, Dr Tedros left Ethiopia and came to the UK where he studied at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, graduating with Masters of Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases in 1992.

He then went on to study at the University of Nottingham, where he received a PhD in community health in 2000.

After this, he returned to Ethiopia where he joined the health ministry and rose through the ranks from regional health minister all the way to national Minister for Heath – a position he took up in 2005.

During his tenure, which lasted until 2012, he was widely praised for opening thousands of health centres, employing tens of thousands of medics, bringing down rates of HIV/AIDS, measles and malaria, as well as bringing information technology and the internet into the heath system.

In November 2012 he was promoted to Foreign Minister, and was widely hailed for helping to negotiate a boost in UN funding for Ethiopia, including as part of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.

Indeed, UN funding records show that around this time the country received millions in additional funding – including from China, which had previously given little or nothing to support the country.

In 2015 and 2016 China gave some $16million to Ethiopia in spending commitments and cash contributions, largely in support of food or refugee programmes.

In 2011, just before Dr Tedros took up the role, and in 2017, just after he left, China handed over another $44million in commitments and contributions.

Its total contributions outside of this period, dating back to the year 2000, were just $345,000. 

In 2017, Dr Tedros left the Ethiopian government and entered the running for Director-General of the WHO as the tenure of Dr Margaret Chan, a Canadian-Chinese physician, was coming to an end.

The election was the first to take place under a system of polling all UN member states as part of a secret ballot. Previously, leaders were chosen by a closed-door vote of an executive committee.

Eventually the field was boiled down to two candidates – Dr Tedros and Briton Dr David Nabarro, a life-long physician who had helped lead UN responses to previous outbreaks including bird flu, the cholera outbreak in Haiti, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Before ascending to the top ranks of the WHO, Dr Tedros studied in the UK and served Ethiopia’s ruling left-wing coalition as health minister and then as foreign minister (pictured in the role in 2015)

Dr Tedros won the ballot by a reported 133 votes to 50, becoming the first African leader of the WHO and the first non-medic to hold the role. His victory came in part thanks to 50 out of 54 African states voting for him.

However, he quickly mired himself in controversy by recommending African dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador, amid allegations he trying to repay favours granted during the election.

There were reports that the move was also intended to reward China, a long-time supporter of Mugabe, for using its influence to have him elected.

The Times added: ‘China has praised the authoritarian development model of Ethiopia’s regime, which rules under emergency powers and has put down pro-democracy protests.’

During the 2017 election itself, several groups within Ethiopia opposed Dr Tedros’s appointment due to his links with the TPLF and allegations that they stifled journalists and repressed minorities.

Dr Tedros was also accused of covering up three separate cholera outbreaks in 2006, 2008 and 2011 by mis-reporting it as ‘watery diarrhea’, allegations he dismissed as a ‘smear campaign’ by his British rival.

Following his election to the WHO, Dr Tedros vowed to reform the organisation by placing an emphasis on universal healthcare at its centre while also increasing funding.

Further UN funding records show that, during his tenure, assessed contributions to the WHO by China have also risen significantly – from roughly $23million in 2016 to $38million in 2019.

China has also committed to a further $57million in funding in 2020, though has yet to pay the balance.

Meanwhile funding from other major world economies – including the US, Russia, Japan and Germany – has remained largely flat or even fallen over the same period.

Assessed contributions make up only around a quarter of the WHO’s budget, the rest of which comes from donations. 

The great cover-up of China: Beijing punished Covid whistleblower, claimed it came from US and ‘lied about death figures’ 

China has lied and covered up key information during virtually every stage of its coronavirus response – from the initial outbreak to the number of cases and deaths, and is still not telling the truth, observers, experts and politicians have warned.

Beijing initially tried to cover up the virus by punishing medics who discovered it, denying it could spread person-to-person and delaying a lockdown of affected regions – meaning early opportunities to control the spread were lost.

Then, once the virus began spreading, the Communist Party began censoring public information about it and spread disinformation overseas – including suggesting that US troops could have been the initial carriers.

Even now, prominent politicians have warned that infection and death totals being reported by the regime are likely to be wrong – with locals in the epicenter of Wuhan suggesting the true tolls could be ten times higher.

Initial outbreak

Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, began reporting the existence of a new type of respiratory infection that was similar to SARS in early December last year.

But rather than publicise the reports and warn the public, Chinese police hauled Wenliang and eight of his colleagues who had been posting about the virus online in for questioning.

Wenliang, who would later die from the virus, was forced to sign a document admitting the information he published was false.

While China has been widely-praised for a draconian lockdown that helped slow the spread of the virus, evidence suggests that the country could have acted much quicker to prevent the spread.


Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first Chinese medics to report the existence of the new coronavirus, was forced by police to confess to spreading false data. He later died from the virus

Samples analysed as early as December 26 suggested a new type of SARS was circulating, the Washington Post reported, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22 – almost a month later.

Wuhan’s mayor also admitted an error that allowed 5million people to travel out of the city before the lockdown came into place without being checked for the virus, potentially helping it to spread. 

Chinese authorities have also been reluctant to had over information on the country’s ‘patient zero’ – or the first person known to have contracted the virus.

While Beijing claims the first infection took place on December 8, researchers have traced the virus back to at least December 1 and anecdotal evidence suggests it was spreading in November.

A lack of information about the first patient has meant scientists are still unclear how the disease made the leap from animals into humans.

Theories include that it could have been carried by a bat or pangolin that was sold at a market in Wuhan and then eaten by someone, but this has not been confirmed. 

Early reports

Chinese authorities initially reported that the virus could not spread person-to-person, despite evidence that it was spreading rapidly through the city of Wuhan including doctors being infected by patients.

This was used as justification for keeping the city of Wuhan operating as normal through a major CCP conference that was held between January 11 and 17, with authorities claiming zero new cases in this period.

China did not confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January, when large parts of Hubei province including Wuhan were put into lockdown. 

Despite reporting the existence of a ‘novel type of pneumonia’ to the World Health Organisation on December 31, Wuhan’s largest newspaper also made no mention of the virus until the week of January 20.

That meant people in the city were not taking precautions such as social distancing to stop it spreading.

It also meant that people had begun travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday, which was due to start on January 24 and sees millions of people visit relatives, spreading the virus further. 

Furthermore, China delayed reports suggesting that some 14 per cent of patients who initially tested negative for the virus or who appeared to have recovered tested positive a second time, only confirming such cases in February.

That further hampered efforts at early containment of the virus in places such as Japan, where patients who tested negative on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were allowed to leave – only to test positive later. 

Authorities in Beijing were also slow to report the deaths of two doctors from the virus, including one who was killed on January 25 but whose death was not reported by state media until a month later. 

The market was shut on January 1 after dozens of workers there had contracted the disease

Origin of the virus

Despite early admissions that the virus began in the city of Wuhan, China later back-tracked – even going so far as to suggest American troops had brought the infection over after visiting the province.

Lijian Zhao, a prominent official within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted out the claim on March 12 while providing no evidence to substantiate it.

‘When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals,’ he wrote.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused American military members of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan

Referencing a military athletics tournament in Wuhan in October, which US troops attended, he wrote: ‘It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. 

‘Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!’

In fact, America’s ‘patient zero’ was a man who travelled from China to Washington State on January 15. The case was confirmed by the CDC six days later.

Chinese has also tried to push the theory that the virus originated in Italy, the country with the most deaths, by distorting a quote from an Italian doctor who suggested the country’s first cases could have occurred much earlier than thought.

Zhao spread the theory in a tweet, while providing no evidence to back it up

Giuseppe Remuzzi said he is investigating strange cases of pneumonia as far back as December and November, months before the virus was known to have spread.

Chinese state media widely reported his comments while also suggesting that the virus could have originated in Italy.

In fact, Remuzzi says, there can be no doubt it started in Wuhan – but may have spread out of the province and across the world earlier than thought. 

Infection total

China has reported a total of some 82,000 infections from coronavirus, claiming a domestic infection rate of zero for several days in a row recently – even as it eased lockdown restrictions in placed like Hubei.

But, by the country’s own admission, the virus is likely still spreading – via people who have few or no symptoms.

Beijing-based outlet Caixin reported that ‘a couple to over 10 cases of covert infections of the virus are being detected’ in China every day, despite not showing up in official data.

Meanwhile foreign governments have heaped scorn on China’s infection reporting cannot be trusted.

Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and former presidential candidate from the US, tweeted that ‘we have NO IDEA how many cases China really has’ after the US infection total passed Beijing’s official figure.

‘Without any doubt it’s significantly more than what they admit to,’ he added.

Meanwhile the UK government has also cast doubt on China’s reporting, with Conservative minister and former Prime Ministerial candidate Michael Gove claiming the Communist Party could not be trusted.

‘Some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this [virus],’ he told the BBC.

Meanwhile sources told the Mail that China’s true infection total could be anything up to 40 times as high as reports had suggested. 

Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, has said that China’s figures cannot be trusted and a far higher than has been reported 

Death total 

Doubt has also been cast on China’s reported death toll from the virus, which currently stands at around 3,300.

Locals in epicenter city Wuhan have been keeping an eye on funeral homes since lockdown restrictions were partly lifted, claiming they have been ‘working around the clock’ to dispose of bodies.

China has reported 3,300 deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be in excess of 42,000

Social media posts estimate that 3,500 urns are being handed out by crematoriums each day, while Caixin reports that one funeral home in the city placed an order for 5,000 urns.

Locals believe that efforts to dispose of the bodies began March 23 and city authorities have said the process will end on or around April 5.

That would mean roughly 42,000 urns handed out in that time frame, ten times the reported figure. 

Chinese aid packages 

As it brought its own coronavirus epidemic under control and as the disease spread across the rest of the world, China attempted to paint itself as a helpful neighbour by sending aid and supplies to countries most in need – such as Italy.

In fact, while the Chinese Red Cross supplied some free equipment to the Italians, the country purchased a large amount of what it received.

Meanwhile officials in Spain said that a batch of coronavirus testing kits bought from China had just 30 per cent reliability – unlike the 80 per cent they were promised.

China has said it is willing to help supply the world with much needed aid and supplies, but has been accused of hoarding protective equipment and selling test kits that don’t work

China is also the world’s largest manufacturer of disposable masks of the kind being worn to slow the spread of the virus by people while out in public.

But as the disease began gathering speed in the country in January, China began limiting exports of the masks while also buying up supplies from other countries, the New York Times reported.

As well as halting virtually all exports of masks, China also bought up some 56million masks and respirators from overseas while fears of a pandemic were still far off.

Despite reports from US mask manufacturers of factories in Shanghai being effectively nationalised, China denies it has any such policy in place and has said it is ‘willing to strengthen international cooperation’ on the issue. 

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