The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new report adds to the evidence of a coronavirus coverup in China

Medical workers attend to covid-19 patients in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 6.
Medical workers attend to covid-19 patients in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 6. (China Daily Cdic/Reuters)
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THE TRUTH about the origin of the coronavirus in China a year ago remains shrouded in mystery. It is not known where the virus came from, nor how it infected humans. But after people started getting sick, it is evident that the scope of the outbreak was hidden from the Chinese people and from the rest of the world. A report by Nick Paton Walsh of CNN on Dec. 1 adds to evidence of a coverup, an authoritarian system in action.

CNN obtained 117 pages of internal records from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention containing tallies of cases and deaths far greater than those provided to the public and the world by the Chinese government. Wuhan is the capital and largest city of Hubei province.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

As we have noted previously, local officials in Wuhan attempted to clamp down on information in December, and when eight doctors expressed concern about the sickness, they were reprimanded for spreading rumors. One of them, Li Wenliang, later died of the virus, and the Wuhan health commission was telling hospitals not to say anything publicly. A second coverup came in the critical early weeks of January, when the local and the national government kept the lid on public information. China’s top officials, including President Xi Jinping, knew of human transmission of the new virus early in the month but did not say anything in public until Jan. 20. Wuhan was put into lockdown on Jan. 23.

The full scope of the spreading virus was not revealed after that, either. According to CNN, in a paper marked “internal document, please keep confidential,” Hubei province officials listed a total of 5,918 new cases for Feb. 10. That internal tally was more than twice what China reported publicly for the whole nation, 2,478 cases, on that day. The documents suggest that the Hubei internal count included a category of people who had been clinically diagnosed by doctors but not yet tested and so were left out of the total — causing it to be much lower. Likewise, on March 7, the total death toll in Hubei since the beginning of the outbreak was listed in the internal report at 3,456, but publicly stated as 2,986. To date, China has put its nationwide pandemic death toll at 4,735, but that is certainly a huge underestimate. China faced medical unknowns and confusion early in the crisis, and its draconian lockdown may have saved millions. But the Hubei documents add weight to the conclusion that China deliberately hid the true dimensions of the disaster.

Wuhan is a major transportation hub in China; on a typical day, an average of 3,500 passengers flew to other countries. While the government hushed up the outbreak, the virus spread. Lately, China has been insisting that the virus had origins outside its borders. The virus origin is a vital question for the world, and investigations are getting underway. But if China has not been truthful and transparent about the initial outbreak a year ago, can it be believed now?

Read more:

The Post’s View: The coronavirus’s origins are still a mystery. We need a full investigation.

David Von Drehle: It’s been a year since covid-19 emerged. The world still isn’t ready for it.

Josh Rogin: Biden must not fall into China’s smooth relations trap

Stewart Baker: Trump wasn’t wrong about China. But here’s how Biden can do a better job.

Greg Sargent: David Perdue’s smarmy new Fox News interview showcases the Trump effect