The morning of Dec. 26, 2019, began as usual at Vision Medicals in Guangzhou in southern China. This commercial laboratory, a private start-up barely a year and a half old, was also known by its Chinese name, Weiyuan Gene Technology. It specialized in next-generation sequencing, called mNGS, and offered applications that can identify most infectious agents — viruses, bacteria and others — in a single test.
A researcher browsed through the latest test results, as she did every day, before turning to her other work. She was proud of the laboratory’s metagenomic sequencing capabilities. Only a month before, her company played a key role in quickly detecting a plague outbreak in Beijing.
The previous day, her laboratory had received a bronchoalveolar lavage fluid sample from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and a major transportation hub, where a 65-year-old man was hospitalized with a pneumonia-like respiratory ailment. When she checked the test results that morning, they indicated the man was infected by a virus similar to the one that causes SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which was first identified in China in 2002 and ultimately killed 774 people worldwide. The researcher was alarmed. She wrote to a co-worker on WeChat, a messaging service, at 9:28 a.m., saying the sample was brimming with something that looked like SARS.
The co-worker wrote back, recalling the Beijing plague outbreak they had worked on together,
This exchange took place 28 days before Wuhan was locked down because of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. In late December and early January, a number of researchers and the Chinese government were aware the virus could spread rapidly, but the truth was kept from the public. In those weeks, the virus exploded, leading to a pandemic that has killed more than 6 million people, by official tally. The actual toll is probably twice as many, or more.
The researcher went by the online moniker Little Mountain Dog, with an avatar of a furry pup sitting alone in a field of lush grass. Her reflections and observations were posted in a blog on Jan. 28, 2020, which she took down two days later, saying it was written “for myself to read in the future, but it spread online and I didn’t want to get involved in anything, so I deleted it.” She asked that no one reprint it, and said the company’s leaders were “understanding and forgiving” after she posted it. “I don’t want to cause trouble to anyone, and I don’t want to stir up public opinion,” she added. At the time, her posts were quoted in news accounts online, including by the magazine Caixin, which published a detailed article, then took down parts of it. “I have to admire the reporters from Caixin.com, who dug up so much accurate information from the messy information in the early days,” she later wrote.
Recently, the research group DRASTIC, which has been probing the pandemic’s origins, retrieved and translated her blog posts, including attached screenshots of WeChat messages. The research group has withheld her real name, and we agreed to do so as well to protect her privacy. It provided her email and we sent a request for comment, but got no response. The company also did not respond.
Her story points to a coverup with tragic consequences of historic proportion. A severe danger was concealed until it was too late. It came about because of a culture that prioritizes political stability at any cost, extraordinary state secrecy, and missteps by public health officials who did not speak out.
The episode serves to underscore once again why a serious investigation is needed to get to the bottom of how the pandemic began. The virus’s origins might have been caused by a zoonotic spillover, a bat coronavirus jumping to humans, possibly with an intermediate host. Or it might have been an inadvertent leak from a laboratory in Wuhan studying bat coronaviruses. Only by learning what really transpired can we reach any conclusions about how to prevent it from happening again. China could go a long way toward finding the answers, but instead it has slammed the door on further inquiry.
‘Strangled in the cradle!’
After the initial surprise on Dec. 26, Little Mountain Dog attempted to analyze the virus more closely. At 10:24 a.m., she wrote to a colleague,
Although she was not certain about the infectivity or pathogenicity of the novel virus, she wrote that the situation was “urgent” and alarming.
At noon, an “emergency meeting” was held at the laboratory. Staffers decided to press ahead with a more in-depth analysis before reporting back to the hospital.
By afternoon, she had figured out that the novel virus was closely related to a pair of bat coronaviruses, similar to the SARS virus. By evening, she had created a phylogenetic tree, a diagram of viral evolution, showing how the virus closely resembled two other known bat coronaviruses.
She was still working at 11:30 p.m.
The next day, Little Mountain Dog had assembled a nearly complete genome of the novel virus and performed other analysis.
A co-worker wrote to her,
How serious was it? The commercial laboratory wasn’t taking any chances. Vision Medicals immediately scrubbed its facility, destroyed the samples and monitored its employees. The laboratory’s leaders telephoned the Wuhan hospital and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention with the results, then traveled to Wuhan to report on Dec. 29 and 30. The results were also shared with the Institute of Pathogen Biology of Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to complete the genomics.
At this point, Little Mountain Dog thought “this matter would pass soon” because she knew of only one infected patient.
But on Dec. 30, she learned that “quite a few patients” had similar symptoms. This was a strong signal the virus was probably spreading. “Suddenly tense,” she wrote. A laboratory in Beijing found an identical virus in a separate sample, and a contact there shared it. “The first thought in the subconscious is ‘this virus is contagious’! It may really be a new type of SARS!” she wrote.
She added, “The mood at this time was both nervous and excited. The nervousness was due to the fact that this unknown virus may be as terrifying as SARS; the excitement was that we detected and confirmed this pathogen early through mNGS technology, and quarantined the patient, so it may be possible to prevent and control the virus before it spreads widely. Strangled in the cradle!”
Genomic sequencing of the single virus sample was not enough by itself to show the virus was highly contagious. But by placing it in the category of SARS, with the sequencing data and other information, Little Mountain Dog had enough clues to set off alarms.
Several separate accounts have indicated the virus might have been spreading through Wuhan in November, and perhaps as early as September and October. Russell J. Westergard, the deputy consular chief in the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, wrote that by mid-October, the consulate team “knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November.” W. Ian Lipkin, a prominent Columbia University virologist, has said publicly that he first was told about a cluster of unexplained respiratory illness spreading in Wuhan on Dec. 15 by a colleague, Jiahai Lu, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
‘Those people who know the truth are silent’
Little Mountain Dog wondered how the Wuhan patient got infected. Her first thought, she wrote, was “the history of contact with wild animals,” maybe with bats. But “it was also suspected that some staff working somewhere with man-made viruses may have been infected by accident because of careless handling” — a possibility a colleague had mentioned to her on Dec. 27, recalling a very recent Brucellosis outbreak after an accident at a vaccine plant in China. That colleague also noted at the time that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “is located nearby.”
However, Little Mountain Dog did not elaborate about the virus origins; her goal was to identify the pathogen, not the source. She thought her laboratory had performed well and demonstrated the value of its technology.
But she watched with deepening anxiety as the government failed to warn people.
On Dec. 30, at 3:10 p.m., the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued an “urgent notice” to health institutions about cases of “pneumonia of unknown origin.” In the early evening, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, wrote in a private Weibo chat group that seven people had contracted a virus similar to the one that causes SARS and were quarantined at his hospital. On Jan. 1, he and other doctors were summoned by police and reprimanded for spreading rumors about Wuhan hospitals receiving SARS-like cases. Li later died of covid-19.
“Feeling that something is wrong,” Little Mountain Dog wrote on Dec. 31. The “overly optimistic” Chinese propaganda machine had swung into action. China’s news media referred obliquely to “rumors” and failed to inform the public of a spreading SARS-like infection.
On New Year’s Day, knowing of the risks of revealing too much information, she nonetheless tried to warn a friend, saying it must be kept “strictly confidential” that a “Novel SARS virus” had been discovered, and then:
Through most of January, the rapid human transmissibility of the virus was hidden from the Chinese public — and from the rest of the world.
“Those people who know the truth are silent,” Little Mountain Dog wrote in her blog post.
On Jan. 3, the National Health Commission telephoned a gag order to laboratories and others not to release any information about the illness to any media, nor post it on social media.
On Jan. 5, the Wuhan health commission reported that preliminary studies had not shown any sign of human-to-human transmission. The World Health Organization, based on that, reported “no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission.” The WHO made repeated private requests to China for more information but got little.
The virus genome was sequenced by a number of leading Chinese institutes, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology and China’s CDC, with which Vision Medicals was in contact during the crucial December days.
On Jan. 5, after a 40-hour shift in the lab, professor Yong-Zhen Zhang of Fudan University in Shanghai sequenced the genome based on a sample from Wuhan. The professor also concluded it was a coronavirus that “looked suspiciously” like the SARS virus, according to Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust in Britain, writing in his book, “Spike.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the virus Jan. 7 at a closed Politburo Standing Committee meeting, but no public warning was issued. In Wuhan, annual provincial and city political meetings were held from Jan. 6 to 17. In that period, the city health commission issued public statements that no new cases were detected. On Jan. 11, the commission actually reduced the number of confirmed cases from 59 to 41. In fact, the virus was spreading, including among some who had visited or worked at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. The market was closed Jan. 1, but human-to-human transmission was exploding in the city. An estimated 7 million people left Wuhan in January before travel was restricted, potentially taking it far and wide.
On Jan. 14, a WHO scientist told a news briefing: “From the information that we have, it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission.”
Little Mountain Dog wrote in a WeChat message that day,
On the same day, the head of the National Health Commission told provincial officials in a closed teleconference that the situation is “severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003,” according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press.
Once again, this urgency was not conveyed to the public.
The secrecy is a trademark of how China’s party-state has dealt with many disasters, from train wrecks to baby food contamination. The SARS outbreak that began in 2002 was characterized by a coverup and government bungling. Supposedly, China had fixed the problems with a real-time direct infectious-disease reporting system. But in Wuhan, it failed. In a study published in 2020, two political scientists, Edward Gu and Lantian Li, reported that Chinese virologists sent their findings to the nation’s health authorities early in the outbreak, but “there is no evidence that Chinese virologists ever issued risk alerts publicly at the time.” The scientists, they concluded, “seem to have been collectively silenced.”
Little Mountain Dog felt “disappointment, sadness, and anger.” Her work at Vision Medicals had left her convinced of the virus’s potential dangers. “Why is it still not under control now?”
She acknowledged the authorities had to avoid “excessive panic” but worried that without a warning, there would be “rapid spread of the virus and more serious consequences.” She saw “no sign of issuing an early warning.” She wrote that “it is unforgivable … not to issue early warnings.”
On Jan. 20, three weeks after the market had been closed, and facing an ever-growing number of cases, the government could no longer maintain the fiction of limited human-to-human transmission. Chinese experts appearing on television publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the contagion. On Jan. 23, the first Wuhan lockdown was announced.
Five days later, Little Mountain Dog posted her account online, then quickly took it down. “Looking back at what I said at the time, it was a prophecy,” she wrote. “I’m sorry for the people of the whole country. Blame me for jinxing it.”
In April, she had not forgotten that she had been so close to the truth, and yet so far from saving countless lives. She wrote a poem, filled with worry and introspection, and posted it. Global cases had just topped 1 million. She wrote:
Apr. 3, 2020
It’s not scary that such a prophecy came true
The scary thing is that almost all my casual predictions have come true
The plot really went according to my intuition
I’m scared myself