In Brief

Coronavirus: four things we learned from the leaked Wuhan Covid-19 files

Documents reveal Chinese officials lied about new infections and deaths as outbreak spread

Leaked documents outlining China’s emergency response to the Covid-19 outbreak have laid bare failures in the early efforts to contain the virus - and lies about the number of lives lost.

The “Wuhan Files” are the “most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic”, providing “the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when”, CNN reports.

The documents “reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public”, adds the US broadcaster, which has had the files verified by “six independent experts”.

Suppressed severity

The documents show that the number of infections being reported to officials were not accurately communicated to international health officials. Analysts believe “this discrepancy was likely due to a combination of a highly dysfunctional reporting system and a recurrent instinct to suppress bad news”, says CNN.

On 10 February, China officially confirmed a nationwide tally of 2,478 new Covid cases, as Reuters reported at the time. However, the newly revealed files show that on this date, officials in the epicentre of the outbreak, Hubei province, reported 5,918 new cases.

The significant discrepancy will add to suspicions that China deliberately misled the World Health Organization (WHO) and wider international community as to the scale of the problem during the early days of the pandemic. 

Testing failures

“One of the more striking data points concerns the slowness with which local Covid-19 patients were diagnosed,” CNN says. A report in the Wuhan Files that dates from early March states that the average time between the onset of symptoms to a confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days - a delay which “experts have told CNN would have significantly hampered steps to both monitor and combat the disease”. 

WHO directive released in late March warned that the availability of “timely and accurate results” was threatened when diagnosis cannot take place during a “24- to 48-hour” window. 

Second viral outbreak

The leaked files also reveal that “Hubei was dealing with a significant influenza outbreak” when the Covid pandemic began, CNN reports.

The flu crisis - which still has not been made public - saw cases “rise to 20 times the level recorded the previous year… placing enormous levels of additional stress on an already stretched health care system”, the broadcaster continues.

“It remains unclear what impact or connection the influenza spike had on the Covid-19 outbreak.” But the flu epidemic affected Wuhan and also the neighbouring cities Yichang and Xianning, all of which were hit hard by Covid too.

The lack of transparency exposed will put additional pressure on China to cooperate with a WHO fact-finding mission to identify the origin of the coronavirus, which has now claimed almost 1.5 million lives worldwide, according to latest figures.

Bureaucratic breakdown

“A lack of preparedness is reflected throughout the documents, sections of which are highly critical in their internal assessment of the government’s support for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) operations in Hubei,” says CNN.

Audits conducted of the facilities and staff at Hubei CDC found the centre to be “underfunded, lacking the right testing equipment, and with unmotivated staff who were often felt ignored in China’s vast bureaucracy”.

Beijing has repeatedly pointed to China’s apparent preparedness for the outbreak, having previously battled the Sars virus in 2003.

The internal documents reveal a very different story, however.

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