What happened in Wuhan? As 1-year mark since shutdown approaches, journalist in China discusses early days of pandemic

BOSTON — As we look back at a year of living with the impacts of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, many are reflecting on how we got to this point. Some remain focused on the origins of the virus in Wuhan, China.

Boston 25 News reporter Jim Morelli had the rare opportunity to speak with Dake Kang, an Associated Press journalist in China, who has been digging into what happened there, to help pull back the curtain and explain those early days.

In late 2019, local Chinese officials knew “pneumonia of unknown cause” was spreading. The national government pointed to 44 total cases, but reported “no evidence of significant human to human transmission.”

“MISSED OPPORTUNITIES”

“What is clear is that the Chinese authorities were much more alarmed about this virus than they were letting on in public,” Kang said. In early 2020, Kang said the number of those falling ill, rose.

“There were a lot of Chinese doctors, kind of local health officials who were aware that there was some kind of mysterious disease that was spreading through the city’s hospitals,” Kang said.

But he told Morelli, in those early days, the Chinese government limited release of information, even punishing those who spoke out adding, “And that certainly led to missed warnings, missed opportunities for realizing this virus was spreading very quickly.”

COMMUNICATION WITH THE WHO

On January 9, Chinese authorities announced to the World Health Organization they were dealing with a novel coronavirus, but the government added that the virus did not readily transmit between people.

WHO Statement regarding cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China

Based on that information, the WHO advised against restricting travel or trade with China.

“It was clearly a two-three week period in there where news is blacked out. And no one knew what was going on, in part because local officials in that system are always afraid to report bad news,” said Boston College political science professor Robert Ross, who specialized in Chinese government.

Dake Kang, says in private, some Chinese authorities at the very least suspected bad news, saying “By January 14, at least, a handful of authorities were saying clustered cases means human-to-human transmission is possible. And they were warning about the possibility of a pandemic.”

By January 20, more than 200 cases were reported in four countries and the WHO confirmed human-to-human transmission was possible, after visiting Wuhan and seeing infected health care workers first-hand.

RELATIONSHIP TO OUTBREAK ELSEWHERE?

Chinese authorities locked down the city of Wuhan on January 23 to contain the spread of the virus, two days after the U.S. reported its first case.

“We know that the introduction of the virus to the United States primarily came from Europe, so that a more prompt Chinese response likely would not have made a difference,” said Ross.

Ross says the explosion of COVID cases in the U.S. appears more likely a result of a slow response here in those first several weeks.

“And that was probably more consequential for the health of the Americans than the two to three weeks in China,” Ross said.

Earlier this year, the WHO toured some of the labs and markets in Wuhan, presumed to be at the start of the outbreak. Upon their return, the Biden administration said they’d still like to see more independent data on what happened there, rather than just the information the Chinese government handed out to WHO officials.


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