Chinese medics have been secretly filmed admitting they knew how dangerous the coronavirus was when it began to wreak havoc in Wuhan – but say they were told to lie about it.
Medical professionals in Wuhan say they knew about virus deaths as early as December 2019, but it was mid-January before China first informed the WHO of a fatality.
They also realised that the virus was passing between humans, but hospitals were told ‘not to tell the truth’ and calls to scrap Lunar New Year festivities were rejected because authorities wanted to ‘present a harmonious and prosperous society’.
The new testimony, which will be broadcast tonight in an ITV documentary called Outbreak: The Virus That Shook The World, flies in the face of China’s denials that it covered up the epidemic in its earliest days.
It comes amid growing pressure on China after a WHO-backed panel said on Monday that Beijing was too slow to respond to the outbreak, days after the US published new claims suggesting the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Medical professionals in Wuhan have been secretly filmed saying they knew about virus deaths as early as December 2019 and realised that the virus was spreading among humans
The Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan where some of the earliest known coronavirus patients were admitted in late December 2019
China first informed the WHO of 27 cases of the then-unknown disease on December 31, 2019, with no deaths reported until mid-January.
But Chinese medics filmed secretly by a citizen journalist say they knew before then that the virus was deadly.
One medic said: ‘Actually, at the end of December or beginning of January, the relative of someone I know died of this virus. Many of those living with him were also infected, including people I know.’
As late as January 12, the WHO was saying there was ‘no clear evidence of human to human transmission’ and said it was ‘reassured of the quality’ of China’s response.
But one Chinese medic said: ‘We all felt there shouldn’t be any doubt about human to human transmission.’
According to one account, doctors who attended a hospital meeting were ‘told not to speak out’ about the true nature of the contagion.
‘We knew this virus transmitted from human to human. But when we attended a hospital meeting, we were told not to speak out,’ one medic said. ‘The provincial leaders told the hospitals not to tell the truth.’
By January 21, when the WHO issued its first situation report on the virus, the disease had infected at least 278 people in China and spread to three other countries.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr Yi-Chun Lo, of the Centers for Disease Control in Taiwan, told the ITV programme that ‘the pandemic could have been avoided at the beginning if China was transparent about the outbreak’
China has lionised its medical workers with murals of people wearing masks outside this Wuhan exhibition celebrating the city’s success – but evidence has continued to emerge that Beijing misled the world about the early days of the outbreak
The medics also claim that authorities knew the risks of Lunar New Year celebrations, realising that the travel and crowds could ‘accelerate the spread of the virus’.
‘People suggested at city level that it shouldn’t go ahead, but it did because such an event would present a harmonious and prosperous society,’ one said.
The testimony of Wuhan medical professionals testimony is backed by leading virologists, including infectious diseases specialist Dr Yi-Chun Lo, the deputy director-general of the Centers for Disease Control in Taiwan.
He said: ‘The very early outbreak management was just a mess, a failure. I think the pandemic could have been avoided at the beginning if China was transparent about the outbreak and was quick to provide necessary information to the world.’
The documentary also hears from Dr Yin-Ching Chuang, from the Infectious Diseases Prevention and Treatment Network in Taiwan, who says he and his team had tried desperately to find out whether the virus was spreading between humans.
After getting permission to travel to mainland China, they say they found it difficult to get clear answers until the truth finally emerged in a meeting.
‘We asked a lot of questions, very unwillingly they finally came out and said limited human-to-human transmission can’t be ruled out,’ he said.
Dr Chuang said: ‘What was the scale of infection? How big was this epidemic? How many patients were affected? We didn’t know. Only they knew this.
‘Why didn’t China inform other countries of this human-to-human matter earlier?’
Virologist Sir Paul Nurse, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, said the outbreak from China to the rest of the world was ‘like a forest fire in the Australian outback’.
‘What might’ve taken two, three, four, five years to spread a couple of hundred years ago can spread in 24 hours,’ he said.
The Chinese government declined to comment, but Beijing has repeatedly rejected claims of a cover-up and said it provided timely information once facts were known.
Height of the crisis: Medical workers wearing full hazmat suits and face shields carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan in January 2020
Beijing has touted its recovery from the early outbreak as a triumph for its Communist leaders, with China’s economy the only major one to grow in 2020.
But on Monday, a new report by a WHO-backed expert panel said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ last January.
The panel, set up last July after countries including Australia angered China by calling for an investigation, said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’ by both China and the WHO.
The criticism is at odds with the WHO’s public statements at the time, when it praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ with which it responded to the outbreak.
The panel also faulted the WHO itself, which has faced a chorus of criticism led by Donald Trump for being too close to Beijing.
The criticism of both authorities comes as a team of WHO experts carries out a separate, politically sensitive mission in China to investigate the origins of the disease.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that ‘no one should be in any doubt that this is a scientific exercise’ to understand how the virus emerged.
The team was expected to investigate the animal market linked to an early cluster of cases, but it is no longer thought that this was necessarily where the virus jumped from animals to humans.
It is widely suspected that the virus originated in bats, but scientists say that it may have passed to humans via another species, possibly pangolins.
The Trump administration has touted alternative theories, rejected by China, that the virus could have leaked out from a virology lab in Wuhan.
Last Friday, the US state department claimed that some researchers at the institute had shown possible Covid-19 symptoms weeks before the outbreak came to light.
China, for its part, has promoted the idea that the virus might not have originated within its borders at all but arrived on contaminated seafood from elsewhere.
The documentary airs on ITV at 9pm on Tuesday.