Documents reveal that Chinese President Xi Jinping waited six days to publicly warn about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, after his top officials determined that the situation was “likely to develop into a major public health event.”
On January 20, Xi broke silence on the outbreak to warn it “must be taken seriously,” with leading Chinese epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan saying for the first time publicly that the virus was transmissible from person-to-person.
That public warning came six days after a January 14 teleconference in which the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, warned Xi and local health officials that a global pandemic was likely underway, according to an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press. Some 3,000 Chinese people are believed to have been infected during the six-day delay.
“The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003, and is likely to develop into a major public health event,” Ma said, according to the memo.
The call came a day after authorities in Thailand discovered the first case reported outside of China, which the memo cited as an indication that the situation had “changed significantly.” It added that “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible.”
“With the coming of the Spring Festival, many people will be traveling, and the risk of transmission and spread is high,” the memo reads. “All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.”
Ma also urged officials to prioritize political considerations and social stability ahead of the long China’s two biggest political meetings of the year in March.
The same day as the teleconference, the World Health Organization stated that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China.” One day prior, on January 19, the National Health Commission said the virus was “still preventable and controllable.”
A timeline of China’s slow response to the coronavirus reveals the failures of Beijing to slow the spread of the pandemic. While the Chinese government has reported approximately 82,000 cases, estimates have suggested the number is closer to 2.9 million.
In December, party officials issued a gag order to labs in Wuhan after scientists realized the novel virus closely resembled SARS, ordering them to halt tests, destroy samples, and conceal the news.
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