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China’s Pandemic Deception

Medical workers in protective suits attend to people at a testing center for the coronavirus in Hong Kong, China, November 30, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

You’ve made it to December in our annus horribilis. On the menu today: sorting through CNN’s fascinating but not completely illuminating bombshell involving leaked documents from the Hubei, China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, filling in some details about the early days of the pandemic.

More Details on How Beijing Misled the World about the Pandemic

Nick Paton Walsh of CNN unveils a fascinating but ultimately frustrating work of journalism based upon 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention from the start of the coronavirus pandemic — what the network calls, “the most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic,” a leak that “provide[s] the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when.”

The first and most significant conclusion confirms what many suspected, that China had significantly more cases than the government’s official numbers claimed: “In a report marked ‘internal document, please keep confidential,’ local health authorities in the province of Hubei, where the virus was first detected, list a total of 5,918 newly detected cases on February 10, more than double the official public number of confirmed cases.” Elsewhere the report notes, “The leaked documents show the daily confirmed death toll in Hubei rose to 196 on February 17. That same day, Hubei publicly reported just 93 virus deaths.” You may recall certain outside observers pointing out that the known number of urns purchased by funeral homes and the operation of crematoriums suggested that the death toll was much higher than the Chinese government was willing to admit.

For what it’s worth, the discrepancy narrowed by March. The internal document said there were 115 new cases while the public number was 83, and internal document said the virus had killed 3,456 while the official number of deaths attributed to the virus was 2,986.

Toward the end of the article, Walsh writes: “China is close to zero local cases and although small-scale outbreaks continue to flare, the virus is mostly contained.” Except . . . the whole scoop from this article is that the Chinese government is not honest in its statements about how many cases exist, so it’s not clear why anyone should be so credulous about Beijing’s assessments now.

Early in the article, CNN offers another strange qualified defense of Beijing: “Though the documents provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings, they do reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.”

But based upon the comments of the experts consulted that appear later in the article, it is hard to believe that the Chinese health officials understated the number of cases accidentally:

William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, said the Chinese approach was conservative, and the data “would have been presented in a different way had US epidemiologists been there to assist.”

He said Chinese officials “seemed actually to minimize the impact of the epidemic at any moment in time. To include patients who were suspected of having the infection obviously would have expanded the size of outbreak and would have given, I think, a truer appreciation of the nature of the infection and its size.”

Andrew Mertha, director of the China Studies Program at John Hopkins University, said officials might have been motivated to “lowball” numbers to disguise under-funding and preparedness issues in local health care bodies like the provincial CDC.

According to Mertha, the documents, which he reviewed and considered authentic, seemed to be organized so as to allow senior officials to paint whatever picture they wished.

Another indicator that the local early response to the virus was creaky and insufficient: “A report in the documents from early March says the average time between the onset of symptoms to confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days, which experts have told CNN would have significantly hampered steps to both monitor and combat the disease.”

One section of CNN’s report focuses on a pre-pandemic internal audit of the Hubei CDC, which concluded the organization was “underfunded, lacking the right testing equipment, and with unmotivated staff who were often felt ignored in China’s vast bureaucracy.” By itself, it is not surprising to find an internal audit in any organization complaining about the budget being too small, not having the needed equipment, or employing subpar staff. But it is interesting to see that this internal assessment echoes the assessment of American officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a separate Chinese medical-research institution — and who came away with concerns about the laboratory’s safety protocols and practices in 2018. Despite the confident assurances of the government in Beijing, China’s scientific community isn’t always running in tip-top shape. We’ve had accounts of laboratories with all kinds of troubles, from “problems with biological disposal” to scientists selling off laboratory animals on the black market. The argument that “Chinese scientists are too professional to ever have a lab accident this consequential” never held water.

Walsh’s article notes near the end, “no mention is made by officials of a so-called laboratory leak, or that the virus was man-made, as some critics, including top US officials, have claimed without evidence. There is one mention of sub-par facilities at a bacterial and toxic species preservation center, though the point is not elaborated on, nor is its significance made clear.” If you type “bacterial and toxic species preservation center,” or “toxic species preservation center” into Google, Walsh’s article is the only reference to that precise wording anywhere.

Wuhan University has a “Typical Species Preservation Center.” Guangdong, China, which is 500 miles away from Wuhan, has a “Microbial Species Preservation Center.” (There would be little reason for the Hubei Province CDC to be assessing an institution that far away.) And there is a not-well-translated article from the Chinese news site, JQKNews.com, that refers to a “microbial (toxin) species preservation center” at . . . the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

One of the more confounding revelations of the leaked documents is that before and during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the region was dealing with a concurrent severe outbreak of influenza. “It caused cases to rise to 20 times the level recorded the previous year, the documents show, placing enormous levels of additional stress on an already stretched health care system” — but this is referring to thousands of cases in a city, not tens of thousands.

Neither the leaked memos nor CNN can determine if there is a connection between the influenza outbreak and the pandemic of COVID-19. The symptoms of the flu and the symptoms of COVID-19 overlap quite a bit, so it’s easy to suspect that COVID-19 cases were mistaken for influenza. But one peer-reviewed study by Chinese scientists and published in the London-based journal Nature suggests that isn’t the case. That study “re-analysed 640 throat swabs collected from patients in Wuhan with influenza-like-illness from 6 October 2019 to 21 January 2020 and found that 9 of the 640 throat swabs were positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA by quantitative PCR, suggesting community transmission of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan in early January 2020.”

Two opposing currents shape American discussion of China in general, and particularly in the context of the pandemic. On the one side, we have much of corporate America that has invested heavily in China and that sees any potential conflict with China as more or less the end of the world. (If any conflict between the West and Beijing turned into a military clash, that might not be quite so hyperbolic.) American companies — and some policymakers and wonks — had traveled way too far down the road of partnership with China to turn back now and could do elaborate mental gymnastics to justify why Chinese oppression and brutality was qualitatively different from oppression and brutality anywhere else. This mentality took root at institutions such as the World Health Organization, too. And because of this, there is an instinct to downplay any wrongdoing by Beijing, lest any particular provocation turn into the 21st-century version of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

The opposing current, less strong but still present, more or less loathes the Chinese government, for a slew of good reasons — from the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, to the genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs, to a still-appalling human-rights record, to predatory trade practices, to military threats against Taiwan and aggressive moves in the South China Sea, to the treatment of Tibet, and so on. This side does want to “poke the bear” — poke the dragon? — because it feels like some retaliatory poking is long overdue. This side doesn’t spend much time worrying about a series of escalations in the conflict between China and the United States, and all too easily slips from thinking that Chinese negligence and reflexive dishonesty made the pandemic the crisis that it is, to thinking China deliberately started the pandemic. They’ll use the opacity of China’s government and society as proof to support the most malevolent interpretation of events. The thing is, the Chinese government can be malevolent and incompetent — and there are dangers to discounting Beijing’s internal problems as well.

ADDENDUM: Meanwhile, in those House races that never seem to get much attention, the Republicans have won at least 211 seats, and they lead in the two that have yet to be called. In addition, this year saw seven House races in which the Democrat won by two percentage points or less, making them among the lowest-hanging fruit for 2022. And redistricting is coming to several states; Rhode Island and West Virginia are each likely to lose one House seat. (Rhode Island’s House delegation is all Democrats, West Virginia’s is all Republicans.) Democrats may be able to squeeze one more seat out of Illinois.