The disease apparently had spread among merchants in a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. “A number of people from hospitals in Wuhan said that the current cause is not clear,” read one of FluTrackers’ first, uncertain posts about the outbreak.
Although few Americans saw the reports and even fewer reacted with urgency, Sanders’s blog began to track, in minute detail, what would soon explode into a pandemic. As eventually became clear, the illnesses chronicled by the blog were the first caused by a new strain of coronavirus.
Only a few mainstream news outlets, mostly in Asia, had picked up the story, echoed in brief reports that first went out on wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters on Dec. 31. Major American news outlets, however, were slower to grasp what Sanders watched unfold in those early morning hours.
The New York Times on Jan. 6 took note of a “pneumonia-like illness” that had sickened 59 people in Wuhan; two days later, The Washington Post, the Times and AP published staff stories about the outbreak after Chinese researchers determined that the illnesses in Wuhan — later dubbed covid-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) — were the result of a previously unknown coronavirus. Even so, the story wasn’t big news. That first Times story was published on page 13 of its print edition; the Post put its first story on A14.
The story didn’t fully enter mainstream discussion in the United States until later in the month. Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto, for example, brought it up in an interview with an emergency-room physician on Jan. 20, noting the potential for rapid transmission. “So I’m beginning to wonder now whether the genie is out of the bottle here...” he said.
The slow-building reaction suggests the Western media underplayed what was unfolding, certainly in the first weeks after the Chinese disclosed it. Even after SARS, swine flu and other outbreaks of recent vintage, a small but novel infection halfway around the world might not have seemed like a very compelling story, especially when other stories — including the impeachment trial of the president — were at the top of the agenda.
When news outlets finally devoted more attention to the story in late January and early February, President Trump and his allies responded by criticizing the coverage as hype, branding it a Democratic conspiracy to undermine Trump‘s reelection chances.
To be sure, much of the early reporting about the virus was tentative and sometimes inaccurate, as is often the case with breaking news events. The authorities involved often don’t have a full understanding yet of what’s unfolding, leaving the journalists who are reporting on them equally in the dark.
But the first reports and commentary about the outbreak were further complicated by questions about the credibility and candor of Chinese officials — the same questions that arose with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China in 2003. During that contagion, WHO accused Chinese officials of covering up the number of cases.
The reports flagged by FluTracker, in fact, were based on government statements about patients who had already been sick for weeks. Efforts to sound the alarm earlier were suppressed; eight doctors in Wuhan who raised concerns before the official announcement on Dec. 31 were detained by police. One of the whistleblowers, Li Wenliang, became a national hero in China before he died of the virus.
Sanders, however, recognized quickly that there was something unique about this outbreak — in part because it seemed highly unusual for Chinese officials to even be acknowledging a health crisis in the first place.
“Local officials and media in China need government approval before they can disclose negative information,” she said in an interview. “Any type of disease outbreak is considered negative [news] and may impact social order.”
When Chinese officials admit to a problem, she said, they tend to undersell it — a red flag that there’s far more to the story. This is what prompted her to stay up late on the night of Dec. 31. But Sanders said she had no idea where the story of the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan would lead.
Her blog’s contributors — who include some medical professionals, though many merely “self-trained” disease-detection enthusiasts — routinely submit links to local news reports, medical journals and other data from around the world, with an eye toward unusual patterns. One of the tipoffs to the seriousness of the Wuhan situation was the absence of data: After the initial disclosures from officials on Dec. 31, the statements stopped.
“China always reports their good news,” she said. “When you don’t hear anything for five days, it warrants more investigation. . . . We knew something was unusual because we follow China and look for trends.”
The details pointed to a far more serious situation than Chinese officials had described. Sanders and her contributors soon started picking up “things we had never seen before” from a hodgepodge of sources, including doctors in Hong Kong, local media accounts and ordinary people in Wuhan. The bits and pieces were shocking: hospital wards with health-care workers dressed in full patient-protective suits, teams disinfecting entire streets, body bags stacked in vehicles outside hospitals.
It quickly became clear that the problem wasn’t isolated or contained. “It appeared to be an infectious and dangerous agent, [an] ominous sign for the world,” she said.
Sanders, herself a self-trained disease-tracker after working in finance and real estate, co-founded the site in 2006 as a hobby — or, as she describes it, “a fun way to meet interesting and intelligent people online.”
Her timing was pretty sharp: Soon after the blog launched, a series of global disease shocks began to break, from the avian flu in 2006, the H1N1/swine flu pandemic in 2009, and the H7N9 bird flu outbreak in China in 2013. The blog aggregated research papers, local reports and obscure documents translated by contributors from multiple languages.
Soon, officials from WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and international agencies were logging on, sometimes several times a day.
Sanders doesn’t take advertising or sell anything on her site. She funds the whole enterprise out of her pocket; her overhead is just a few thousand dollars a year for server time. The rest, she says, is “a labor of love.”
These days, more than a few people seem interested. Since the outbreak in Wuhan, Sanders says, FluTrackers has attracted nearly 353,000 unique visitors who have clicked on the site 15.5 million times, far more than the 11.6 million recorded during all of 2019.