Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, October 14, 2020. Donate to FAIR here.
FAIR (6/21/20) has criticized various conspiracy theories propagated by corporate media alleging a coverup of crucial information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese government, as well as the notion (FAIR.org, 4/17/20, 10/6/20) that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid, emerged from a Chinese lab. Now that some time has passed since the beginning of the outbreak, it’s worth revisiting the less-conspiratorial corporate media narrative that the Chinese government maliciously or incompetently delayed the release of critical information early on, thereby causing many unnecessary deaths.
Associated Press (6/3/20) claimed China “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week,” and that “Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on January 11.” In fact, a Chinese researcher uploaded the genome to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information on January 5 (Time, 8/24/20).
While many other news outlets (e.g., New York Times, 2/7/20; Vox, 2/10/20) have accused the Chinese government of covering up the severity of the pandemic in its initial stages and delaying the release of crucial information, the Associated Press has been promoting this narrative with particular intensity. Its report, “China Delayed Releasing Coronavirus Info, Frustrating WHO” (6/3/20), claimed that World Health Organization “officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government,” based on unreleased private recordings of WHO officials complaining that China wasn’t “sharing enough data” in internal meetings. Amid various conspiracy theories peddled by US media of the WHO colluding with China to conceal Covid-19’s severity, AP alleged that its findings support the narrative of an agency “stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limited authority.”
A separate AP report on June 3 alleged “significant delays by China in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak that compromised the WHO’s understanding of how the disease was spreading.” China, the news service claimed, “sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information,” which “stalled the recognition of its spread to other countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines.”
AP reported that the first complete genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was published by Chinese virologist Zhang Yongzhen’s team to the public database virological.org on January 11, six days after they completed the task on January 5; the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) Shi Zhengli had finished sequencing the genome on January 2, according to a notice on the WIV’s website. But AP’s reporting presented Chinese stalling as an incontrovertible fact rather than a debatable opinion, burying the views of scientists who disagreed with that assessment in the 73rd and 74th paragraphs:
Some scientists say the wait was not unreasonable considering the difficulties in sequencing unknown pathogens, given accuracy is as important as speed. They point to the SARS outbreak in 2003 when some Chinese scientists initially—and wrongly—believed the source of the epidemic was chlamydia.
“The pressure is intense in an outbreak to make sure you’re right,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealthAlliance in New York. “It’s actually worse to go out to go to the public with a story that’s wrong because the public completely lose confidence in the public health response.”
Time (8/24/20): “Crises beget scapegoats, and the coronavirus is no different.”
AP’s narrative was later debunked by an exclusive interview Zhang gave to Time magazine (8/24/20). He revealed that he had uploaded the completed genomic sequence on January 5 (the same day his team finished) to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is corroborated by the submission date listed on the open access US government Genbank.
AP seemed to downplay whether Chinese officials had any reasonable public health concerns for not taking stricter measures sooner, and to suggest that waiting for more evidence or confirmation was mere stalling (e.g., “China stalled for at least two weeks more…”). The wire service implied that the Chinese government messed up “sharing the information with the world,” citing an earlier report by Caixin Global (2/29/20), a Chinese corporate media outlet, that made it seem like the Chinese government was trying to conceal the novel coronavirus when it first reported on a confidential “gag order” by the National Health Commission.
The order commanded private genomics companies to destroy or transfer “Wuhan pneumonia samples” to “approved testing facilities” on January 3. Time also cited the gag order, and the repeatedly debunked myth of silenced “whistleblower doctors,” as evidence that the “stakes of doing what is right over what one is told are rendered far higher in authoritarian systems like China’s,” even as Zhang denied Western media reports of his lab suffering prolonged closure during the pandemic.
Completely omitted by Time and Caixin’s reports is the fact that under Chinese law, private genomics companies aren’t authorized to handle highly contagious pathogens, which is a standard public safety measure (South China Morning Post, 5/15/20; Wall Street Journal, 5/16/20); many governments, including the US, have regulations that require labs with lower biosafety ratings to destroy or transfer samples of dangerous pathogens.
Caixin’s report also omitted that the Chinese government had notified the WHO and the US CDC on January 3 about their discovery of a potentially new coronavirus—the same day the “gag order” was issued—even as it noted that the WHO received information from China about a mysterious pneumonia outbreak on December 31. These are very strange things to do if the Chinese government really were trying to “throttle” and conceal news of the outbreak. It’s unclear whether the WIV was really ordered to destroy samples of the virus, as Caixin initially reported by citing an anonymous virologist; Shi denied ever receiving orders to destroy samples after the outbreak.
AP’s report also framed Chinese officials initially setting strict criteria for confirming new cases of Covid-19 as having “censored doctors who warned of suspicious cases,” when few new cases were reported between January 5 and January 16 (AP, 1/28/20), even as it mentioned later that Chinese officials and health professionals lacked a “full understanding of how widely the virus was spreading and who was at risk.” The article noted that Chinese officials were debating whether Covid-19 had limited or sustained human-to-human transmission before renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan confirmed there was sustained human-to-human transmission on January 20; China ordered the quarantine of Wuhan only days later, on January 23.
Debate wasn’t unreasonable at the beginning of the outbreak—when it was unclear how infectious or deadly Covid-19 was—as the first known death didn’t occur until January 9, in a 61-year-old man with comorbidities. It wasn’t until January 26 that the Chinese National Health Commission announced that researchers believed the incubation period for SARS-CoV-2—the time it takes for an infected person to develop symptoms—could range from one to 14 days, during which asymptomatic carriers could still infect others, unlike the SARS virus in the 2003 outbreak (BBC, 1/26/20). Other international outbreaks, like bird flu viruses and MERS, turned out to have limited human-to-human transmission, with scattered human-to-human transmission primarily triggered by animal-to-human transmission (Stat, 1/21/20).
CNN‘s Bianco Nobilo (2/21/20) interviewing Laurie Garrett. CNN reported calls to treat China’s numbers skeptically, “given the government’s track record of suppressing information about this epidemic.”
Nor is it unreasonable to revise the criteriato count new Covid-19 cases upon getting new information and improved testing capacity in real time. By late February, CNN (2/21/20) reported that China had already revised its methodology of counting new cases three times in order to broaden their case definition to include more cases, not fewer, but while plenty of other countrieswere doing the same thing, only China’s revisions were singled out and framed as a “cover-up.”
China taking the time to discuss and confirm whether there was sustained human-to-human transmission was also condemned by the AP in an earlier report, “China Didn’t Warn Public of Likely Pandemic for Six Key Days” (4/15/20), which also accused the Chinese government of concealing the virus from the Chinese public during the critical time period of January 14 to January 20:
That delay from January 14 to January 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.
But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time—the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 133,000 lives.
This story was based on blatant and easily disprovable falsehoods. Chinese state media warned the public of a “new type of coronavirus” multiple times before this supposed “critical time,” as Beijing-based journalist Ian Goodrum pointed out on Twitter (4/15/20).
As I also pointed out earlier (FAIR.org, 3/6/20), soon after Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to report the novel coronavirus to health authorities on December 27, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission made announcements on December 30 and December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; Japan Times, 12/31/19; Medical Xpress, 12/31/19) picked up on China’s announcement and were able to report on this supposedly “secret” information in real time. The health commission’s media statements were also picked up by other institutions, like the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19), Hong Kong’s government (12/31/19), the World Health Organization’s Country Office in China (12/31/19) and the US-based International Society for Infectious Diseases (12/30/19).
AP’s own reporting (1/15/20) also disproves the notion that the Chinese government wasn’t warning the public, as both Chinese and WHO officials urged the public not to rule out the possibility of sustained human-to-human transmission during this time period, and were already keeping patients isolated, since that’s a standard precaution for novel pathogens (Guardian, 4/9/20).
AP’s January 15 report was published before official announcements on SARS-CoV-2’s incubation period and capacity for asymptomatic transmission, and noted that the reason Chinese officials claimed the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission remained low was that “there remains no definitive evidence of human-to-human transmission,” as it appeared at the time that “hundreds of people” have “been in close contact with infected individuals” without themselves being infected. However, omitting the crucial distinction between limited and sustained human-to-human transmission may have given the misleading impression that Chinese officials were denying that any human-to-human transmission was occurring at all (Scientific American, 1/24/20).
AP (4/15/20) criticized China for a “public silence” on the coronavirus that ended January 20—though a January 15 AP piece led with Chinese officials warning that “the possibility that a new virus in central China could spread between humans cannot be ruled out.”
AP’s April 15 report also admitted that China had a real dilemma. If China had announced early on that there was sustained human-to-human transmission without waiting for evidence to confirm their claim and got it right, many lives would have been saved. On the other hand, AP noted that if health officials “raise the alarm prematurely,” it would “damage their credibility” and “cripple their ability to mobilize the public.” Yet AP’s coverage throughout the pandemic has consistently framed following scientific procedure by taking the time to confirm new information as needless “delays” or deliberate “stalling.”
Could China have done better and acted faster? While the Chinese government admitted that their response had “shortcomings and deficiencies,” it’s a nebulous question, because one can always conceive retrospectively of numerous ways pandemic responses could have been improved. There are no definitive guidelines for how soon a government should release critical information like a novel pathogen’s genomic sequence, or whether it’s capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, because every pandemic situation differs widely. The most insightful ways to assess a country’s pandemic response is to compare it with their responses to previous pandemics, and to compare their current response with other countries’ approaches in the real world, instead of playing with simulations (FAIR.org, 3/17/20), or comparing China’s response with some abstract ideal where everything was handled perfectly.
Even the above condemnatory reports cited numerous health professionals pointing out that China’s approach is more accurately described as “appropriate verification.” To “actually have the whole genome sequence by early January was outstanding compared to outbreaks of the past,” Time (8/24/20) acknowledged, while admitting that there was “some historical basis for skepticism” about the severity of the novel pathogen. The WHO was condemned, for example, for being hasty and overdramatic for declaring the 2009 swine flu outbreak a pandemic when the virology didn’t warrant it (Science, 1/14/10).
AP’s April report (4/15/20) was based on a study that claimed that cases could have been reduced by up to two-thirds if the Chinese government had taken stricter public health measures a week earlier. However, the report omitted that the study was trying to assess the effectiveness of various “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs), instead of trying to criticize China. It concluded that China’s NPIs “appear to be effectively containing the Covid-19 outbreak,” and estimated that Covid-19 cases would “likely have shown a 67-fold increase” without China’s NPIs. But presenting the study’s actual findings accurately would ruin the basis for AP’s hit piece. Independent and prestigious medical journals like Science (5/8/20), Nature (5/4/20) and the Lancet (3/7/20, 7/25/20) also hailed China’s response and credited it for saving lives by preventing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cases (CGTN, 5/10/20).
Outlets like the Washington Post (1/27/20) condemned China’s effective measures to halt the Covid-19 outbreak as “authoritarianism.”
China’s early, unprecedented and large-scale quarantine of Wuhan was the biggest signal it could’ve sent to the rest of the world that it was containing a serious problem; it was widely dismissed and condemned as “authoritarian” by US media at the time. “China’s Coronavirus Lockdown — Brought to You by Authoritarianism,” a Washington Post headline (1/27/20) declared. The Atlantic (1/24/20) called the Chinese response “a radical experiment in authoritarian medicine,” suggesting that “part of the fear and panic in the current case seems less due to the virus than to the response”; Slate (1/24/20) asserted, “Violating People’s Rights Is Not the Way to Address the Coronavirus.”
US media could revisit those dismissals, to explore whether earlier information from China would have made any difference, as countries like the US didn’t act on the information it already had from China, and squandered precious preparation time by lying to the public, censoring, covering up cases and preventing adequate supplies from reaching medical professionals.
It is easy for US media to dutifully follow US government directives to propagate the myth of Chinese “coverups” and “delays” by retroactively projecting current knowledge of Covid-19 onto China during the initial phase of the outbreak (MintPress News, 5/18/20; Foreign Policy, 7/30/20). However, the more difficult questions of why the US’s pandemic response has been exceptionally bad, as a result of its capitalist system prioritizing profits over people (FAIR.org, 4/1/20, 4/15/20, 5/1/20), and US imperialism preventing cooperation with China and the rest of the world (FAIR.org, 7/28/20), would be more worthwhile.
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