Head of China’s CDC Denies Spreading Misinformation on Coronavirus Transmissibility

Gao Fu, director of China Center for Disease Control and Prevention addresses the media in Beijing, China, January 26, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told state media that he “never, ever” publicly denied that the coronavirus was transmissible between people, and said he “already suspected” it during a visit to Wuhan in mid-January.

Dr. Gao Fu, China’s CDC director, told CGTN — the English-language branch of state-run broadcaster CCTV — that after a day of visiting patients and doctors in Wuhan on January 19, “we already gathered the conclusion — it’s clear.”

A timeline of China’s initial response to the virus shows on December 21, doctors in Wuhan were noticing a “cluster of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause,” and began quarantining staff who became ill on December 25. But on December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission declared that it had “not found any obvious human-to-human transmission and no medical staff infection.”

In a paper that Gao published with colleagues on January 21, they noted that China had sequenced three strains the novel virus on January 3, but made no mention of the fact that Wuhan genomics laboratories had sequenced the outbreak by December 27, but were ordered by local and national officials to hand over or destroy the samples and not release their findings. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported on January 6 that there was no evidence of human transmissibility.

“We didn’t have the evidence, but we already suspected, there might be human-to-human transmission, and more importantly — based on the knowledge of other coronaviruses, we know there must be human-to-human transmission,” Gao admitted in the interview. “The only thing is whether or not it’s very serious.”

Professor Zhong Nanshan, the leader of Beijing’s coronavirus expert team and one of the experts who arrived in Wuhan with Dr. Gao, confirmed human-to-human transmission to the public on January 20. A report last week shows that the head of China’s National Health Commission, which controls the CDC, warned Chinese president Xi Jipeng and local health officials that a global pandemic was likely underway on January 14, urging political considerations and social stability in the wake of the outbreak and adding that “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible.” The same day, the World Health Organization tweeted 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.”

On January 15, Li Qun, the head of the China CDC’s emergency center, told state television that “we have reached the latest understanding that the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low.”

“The CDC acted sluggishly, assuming all was fine,” a Chinese state health expert, told The Associated Press. “If we started to do something a week or two earlier, things could have been so much different.”

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