It is wrong to accuse China, based on present evidence, of willfully releasing a plague on the world. It is right to point out that China’s system and its deceptions made the situation worse, and the proper remedy would be more transparency and full disclosure.
The novel coronavirus probably went through natural selection — a series of mutations — that gave it the ability to infect and spread among humans. It could have evolved in animals, or after making the leap to people. Studies show that the genetic material in the current virus is an 82 percent match for the earlier SARS virus; another type of coronavirus found in bats is an 89 percent match. Some but not all of the early victims had visited a Wuhan seafood market where live animals were also sold, a so-called wet market.
A more troubling explanation is that the coronavirus was inadvertently spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had carried out research on bat coronaviruses and possessed a biosafety level 4 facility, the most secure for handling highly pathogenic and infectious diseases. It is not beyond possibility that an accident or spill occurred.
Most experts say there is no evidence that China deliberately engineered the virus as a weapon. Enough of that conspiracy talk. But whether the source was an animal or an inadvertent spill, more investigation is needed. China ought to be absolutely transparent about what it finds.
The first coverup
After the 2002-2003 SARS disaster, in which the spreading infection was concealed, China put in place an infectious disease reporting system that was supposedly immune from meddling. The information would go straight to Beijing. But when unusual cases of illness that looked like pneumonia began to accumulate in Wuhan in December, the system broke down.
Local officials attempted to clamp down on information. When eight doctors in the city expressed concern about the new sickness, they were reprimanded for spreading rumors. One of them, Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, later died of the virus. He had spoken up in an online chat group on Dec. 30. At the time, the Wuhan Health Commission was telling hospitals not to say anything publicly.
The second coverup
In the critical early weeks of January, as the virus spread, the local and national governments kept the lid on public information. We know from transcripts that President Xi Jinping has said he was aware of the virus spread on Jan. 7. A pair of annual party meetings were held in Wuhan from Jan. 12 to Jan. 17, and a huge potluck supper for 40,000 families was held Jan. 18. In that period, a city health commission issued public statements that no new cases were detected.
On Jan. 14, the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation in a confidential teleconference with provincial health officials. According to a memo of the session, disclosed by the Associated Press, he said the situation was “severe and complex,” and “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible.” The memo said “the risk of transmission and spread is high. All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic.” The National Health Commission issued a 63-page document on response procedures, but it was labeled “internal” — “not to be spread on the Internet” and “not to be publicly disclosed.”
But the very next day, Li Qun, head of China’s disease control emergency center, told state television that “the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low.”
Again, the system opted for deception at the expense of public health. Mr. Xi did not warn the public until Jan. 20, seven days after the health commission teleconference.
The death toll
Wuhan was put into lockdown Jan. 23. China marshaled resources as only an authoritarian regime could. The measures bought time for the rest of the world. To its credit, China shared the whole genome sequence of the virus on Jan. 11, an important contribution toward preparing diagnostic tests.
China’s official death toll seemed far too low considering the size of the population, and anecdotal evidence described many more deaths. On Friday, China revised the Wuhan death toll upward by 50 percent, to 3,869, based on a reexamination. This is welcome, must be done for the whole country and is precisely the attitude that China needs to embrace — a search for and admission of the truth.
China has now launched a wide-ranging campaign to portray Mr. Xi as the hero who vanquished the virus. Some Chinese officials have gone so far as to claim that the United States created it, conspiracy talk just as ugly as that heard in Washington. But the part of China’s campaign that is most troubling is the claim — now being disseminated widely — that China’s system should be emulated. Global Times, the strident nationalist daily, declared the other day that China’s model is the only “successful” one to extinguish the virus. An article Thursday went so far as to declare China’s rise was coming about because of the West’s decline.
This sharpening of the knives is dangerous. The United States and China need to cooperate to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath; China is critical in the global supply chain for drugs and personal protective equipment, and is an economic superpower. China and the rest of the world must also confront infectious disease together, not use it to score points. But no one should conclude that China’s authoritarian model is one to be emulated. The model — deception, coverup and rewriting history — is part of the problem, not the solution.