Wuhan Coronavirus: Is China Letting Us Know Enough About It?

Wuhan Coronavirus: Is China Letting Us Know Enough About It? The n-CoV outbreak in China.
Snapshot
  • From silencing potential whistleblowers to censoring social media, there’s something deeply suspicious about how China is handling the coronavirus outbreak.

    Here are some data that prove something is amiss in China.

The 2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has put the world on a panic mode. Increasingly, cases are being detected all across the globe, and a deluge of information from various news portals are emerging.

While the Chinese government is trying to assure the rest of the world that they will swiftly bring it under control and there is no need to panic, here are some reasons why I am sceptical about the assurances given by the People’s Republic of China.

1. The Suspicious Time Of Origin

According to official sources, the n-CoV cases were detected from December 2019 onwards, and were reported to the China National Health Commission on 30 December 2019.

Official timeline of n-CoV outbreak. (Source: The Lancet)
Official timeline of n-CoV outbreak. (Source: The Lancet)

But the genetic sequences reveal a different story – cases started to appear a month before the reported one. The calculated TMRCA (time to most recent common ancestor) of the sequenced viruses collected from cases all around the world show that the infection started in November 2019, not December.

This is a one-month gap, which does not correlate with the incubation period range of 2-10 days as reported by WHO, and 14 days as reported by CDC. Does this mean the previous cases were covered up?

2. The Genome

The genome (genetic code) of n-CoV had also been very confusing. It was unlike the coronaviruses which infect humans. n-CoV matched more with bat-infecting SARS-like coronaviruses, as found by a team of researchers at Wuhan, China.

These bat-infecting SARS-like coronaviruses were isolated from Chinese Rufous Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus sinicus) in 2015.

But you know why it is surprising? Because now is the hibernating season of the bats. Then why is a virus, which shares commonality with bat-infecting coronaviruses, infecting humans? Also, bats were not sold in the Huanan seafood market, unlike what the videos showed.

Moreover, researchers also found out that –

Third, the sequence identity between 2019-nCoV and its close relatives bat-SL-CoVZC45 and bat-SL-CoVZXC21 was less than 90%, which is reflected in the relatively long branch between them. Hence, bat-SL-CoVZC45 and bat-SL-CoVZXC21 are not direct ancestors of 2019-nCoV. Fourth, in both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, bats acted as the natural reservoir, with another animal (masked palm civet for SARS-CoV and dromedary camels for MERS-CoV) acting as an intermediate host, with humans as terminal hosts. Therefore, on the basis of current data, it seems likely that the 2019-nCoV causing the Wuhan outbreak might also be initially hosted by bats, and might have been transmitted to humans via currently unknown wild animal(s) sold at the Huanan seafood market.

So, there is a missing link between the bats, from which the ancestors of Wuhan coronavirus originated, and humans, whom this virus is devouring.

3. The Heavy Censorship In China

Muyi Xiao, a visual editor at ChinaFile, whose family lives in Wuhan, talks about censorship in China by the CCP on the Wuhan Coronavirus, in Asia Society (Source: Muyi Xiao in Asia Society)

Susan Jakes (ChinaFile’s editor) – I want to ask you another question about how people are feeling about the reliability of information that they're getting. I remember during the SARS outbreak of 2003 I was living in Beijing and reporting on it, and there was a moment when thanks to some high-ranking whistle blowers who were both doctors and senior government officials, China's leaders were forced to essentially concede that they had covered up the extent of the epidemic.

They very suddenly revised the official number of SARS cases from I think about 40 to close to 400 and the same day they fired the Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing, you know. And this was just a couple days after there had been hospitals in Beijing (which) have literally hidden highly infectious (and) very sick SARS patients from World Health Organization inspectors, in one case putting the patients into an ambulance and driving them around Beijing for several hours until the WHO inspectors left and in another case transferring them from their hospital beds to a hotel.

And when the true numbers came out nobody in Beijing believed them. Everyone assumed that the outbreak was far more extensive than it actually was and there were a couple of weeks of real panic and anger at the government.

You were in Wuhan in school at the time and I just wonder what do you remember about SARS, and are people similarly skeptical of the information that the government is providing now or more trusting?

Muyi Xiao – So yes I was you know I was in school, I was a student in Wuhan when SARS broke out I don't remember that much because SARS was not like…. Wuhan was not…. you know…. a city that had a very serious situation. But I do remember that we were burning vinegar in our school, so I doubt that was the first time I ever smelled burned vinegar and the smell just like stuck in my mind like all these years.

But I think our…. you know…. like my parents and our teachers are relatively calm and we didn't really (did anything) like stop the classes or anything. And this time I would say, like just from my conversations with my friends and families in Wuhan, people definitely have…. people are… like sceptical.

Like it's not the scepticism doesn't show up like you know in a conversation, they won't just tell me like “they must be lying”, they're not gonna say anything like that but then we would discuss… we would like throwing bowls around like I would talk to my parents…. like “it's so weird that we have all these cases outside of China but like the number remains the same in Wuhan” and then we respond it like “Yeah that is weird.

Maybe something weird about the virus, but yeah…. you don't think they're gonna… they're covering it up, right?” You know it's more like this…. I don't think people are like that sure the government is covering up but they're not excluding that possibility.

SJ – I'm also curious to hear how easy you feel it had been for local reporters to report and publish their reporting. We talked about this a few minutes ago, but you and I got a glimpse of some fairly alarming censorship early on.

It was January 23rd, the day that the lockdown in Wuhan began. I was in Hong Kong, you were in New York and we were both glued to our computers watching the news and Caixin which as you just said it was the business news magazine that's one of the most independent investigative news outlets in China posted a story that quoted several doctors in Wuhan estimating that there were as many as six or seven thousand cases in Wuhan.

Of course, now there are more than 20,000 confirmed cases, but at the time there were just I think about a hundred…. or couple hundred. We translated that line of that news report and we quickly tweeted it. We tweeted out the link from ChinaFile Twitter account…. anyway a few minutes later people started complaining that we had translated the story wrong and they said that the story had actually said that doctors ‘predicted’ that there could eventually be as many as six to seven thousand cases so we looked at the story and there was the word “eventually”… which kind of means like “in the end”.

Unfortunately you, Muyi, had taken a screen grab of the article when you first read it and we compared your screen grab with the article as it was then appearing on Caixin's website and we realized that that word had been added after the story had originally been published but there was no correction posted… you know… for what was a major difference in the facts of the story.

And so we were very curious about that. And we showed these two different versions of the story to folks on Twitter and then you got on the phone and spoke to some friends in the Caixin newsroom and they were fuming because it turned out that they had been ordered to add the word eventually to the piece and it was the first version that had actually been correct so how much are you hearing that that kind of thing is still happening and in the days since then there's been some really strong reporting from members of the Chinese press. Do you think that's going to be able to continue?

MX – No, I am not positive about that, because you know like Caixin had some pressure on that piece as well as many other pieces but at least they could publish them at that time.

But I have multiple journalist friends from different mainline Chinese media (who) have been telling me the past two days that very heavy censorship has kicked in. You know, multiple news outlets have received the orders to be to… you know… either be very careful publishing the future news, or even they might need to like delete some of their previous news.

That's why there are some volunteers online…. they actually now made a list of all the previous news articles from Mainland news outlets together and then, you know, just during the time like they put this list in last Saturday and some friends and I would start to translate them and archive them and just in the process of archiving it, we realized some link was initially available and then it's like just invalid right now.

SJ – So you know these are already published stories that are already starting to disappear from the Internet.

MX – Yes. Yes, there are a couple of stories like that… yeah. And then also remember it was Monday when I woke up, and I was you know every day I woke up first thing is like I got my WeChat and just like see what's the latest, and I remember Monday morning I opened my WeChat and I had to stand up…. The virus already disappeared! And everyday the whole WeChat is like looks so different.

The things people shared…. I don’t know why it's just like there are like…. not much like critical articles coming out in the past day, because all of a sudden the whole content of what everyone are sharing are different. I don't know what made that happen but it has been like this for the past two days. Yeah, it's very weird yeah.

Furthermore, many people have reported heavy censorship even in websites like Reddit, and also several YouTube creators have noticed their videos about the outbreak being demonetised, as confessed by Chris Chappell of “China Uncensored”.

A screen grab from Reddit showing the censorship in the social media platform about the outbreak. (Source: Imgur)
A screen grab from Reddit showing the censorship in the social media platform about the outbreak. (Source: Imgur)

We already know how doctors who tried to be whistleblowers about the Wuhan coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak faced tough times from the government.

The most famous of them being the first doctor, Li Wenliang, who tried to inform his colleagues in a WeChat group about a “possible SARS-like illness which he saw in some of his patients” and then was arrested the next day and given a warning to “stop spreading fake news” and then let off. He later died of the same virus on 7 February.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first doctor who noticed the outbreak.
Dr Li Wenliang, the first doctor who noticed the outbreak.
Screenshot of the WeChat group in which Li Wenliang talked about the outbreak, and the corresponding translations. (Source: SerpenTZA/YouTube)
Screenshot of the WeChat group in which Li Wenliang talked about the outbreak, and the corresponding translations. (Source: SerpenTZA/YouTube)
An image of the warning given by state police to Dr Li Wenliang, and the corresponding translations. (Source: SerpenTZA/YouTube)
An image of the warning given by state police to Dr Li Wenliang, and the corresponding translations. (Source: SerpenTZA/YouTube)

Even when the government knew about the coronavirus, they decided to keep mum. One proof is the green signal given to the people of Bai Bu Ting Lu area in Wuhan to celebrate their reunion feast, called “Wanjia Banquet” on 18 January, when the Wuhan Coronavirus was already detected on 30 December 2019. Bai Bu Ting Lu is approximately 7 km from Huanan Seafood Market, from where the outbreak is thought to have originated.

Surprisingly, amongst the cases from Bai Bu Ting community, no one visited the seafood market, but they have attended the banquet.

Photo of a local newspaper showing the Wanjia Banquet.
Photo of a local newspaper showing the Wanjia Banquet.

Here, I have presented relevant data to show that something is amiss, and that China is onto something we are not allowed to know by them. Speculations are rife that the 2019-nCoV is genetically engineered, while some say that the CCP is doing this to protect its rule over China and prevent the “Mandate of Heaven” to happen.

While it’s yet early to say, but we should remain vigilant, as the virus is continuing to spread all over the world.

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