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How China Has Tried To Suppress Coronavirus Science

So far as investigative journalists have been able to determine, the suppression came directly from the top

An investigation by the Associated Press reveals what everyone has suspected since the beginning of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) pandemic: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been keeping a tight rein on the publication or distribution of any scientific research on the coronavirus conducted within the country.

AP recently found out just how extensive the muzzling of scientific findings has been. Its report also confirms that the orders came from the top:

The AP investigation was based on dozens of interviews with Chinese and foreign scientists and officials, along with public notices, leaked emails, internal data and the documents from China’s cabinet and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic.

Dake Kang, Maria Cheng and Sam McNeil, “China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins” at Associated Press

These findings show the extent to which the CCP is trying to control the narrative around the origins of the coronavirus.

The Chinese government has come under scrutiny, both domestically and internationally, for withholding vital information on the COVID-19 outbreak. An independent panel commissioned by the World Health Organization found that China and other countries could have done more to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Also, the WHO could have declared the outbreak a public health emergency earlier. The organization declared it a public health emergency at the end of January but did not declare it a pandemic until March 11.

An AP investigation in June 2020 found that China knowingly withheld urgent public health information from the WHO, going against international rules as a member. However, the WHO itself has also been criticized for censoring vital data about the coronavirus in Italy for political reasons. The Times of India gives one possible reason for this: Italy had been using many thousands of Chinese workers from Wuhan in order to continue to claim that high-priced fashion items were Made in Italy. Many of these people may have been victims of the pandemic and their fate may help account for high COVID-19 figures in Italy.

How science can be suppressed

The most recent AP investigation shows that the CCP has given hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money to researchers, including those affiliated with the military, to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic within China. All the while, the CCP continues to espouse alternative theories that place the origins of the pandemic outside of China.

According to secret directives obtained by the AP, any samples taken from bats located in the caves where the original SARS-CoV virus was found have been confiscated by authorities. Associated Press journalists tried to go to these caves in the Yunnan province but were hindered by a strategically placed broken-down truck. Additional directives say any scientific publications must be vetted by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Health Commission prior to publications. Chinese researchers are not permitted to collaborate or share data with foreigners:

[The CCP authorities] only select people they can trust, those that they can control,” said a public health expert who works regularly with the China CDC, declining to be identified out of fear of retribution. “Military teams and others are working hard on this, but whether [the scientific data] gets published all depends on the outcome. “The pandemic has crippled Beijing’s reputation on the global stage, and China’s leaders are wary of any findings that could suggest they were negligent in its spread.”

Dake Kang, Maria Cheng and Sam McNeil, “China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins” at Associated Press

Throughout the pandemic, the CCP has suppressed information that runs counter to the official narrative. Bitter Winter and the Associated Press provide timelines of information suppression during the early days of the pandemic. The AP begins its timeline in December when multiple patients were showing symptoms of a pneumonia-like disease. Bitter Winter begins its timeline in November when the first case of the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan.

In October, prior to these timelines, there were indications that something may have happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Institute is a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory. That means it deals with contagious pathogens that do not have a cure. The Institute was one of two laboratories in Wuhan that conduct research on SARS-like coronavirus from bats. While the “lab leak” hypothesis has been fodder for some fringe theories, the possibility of that origin can’t be ruled out completely. Author Nicholson Baker writing in New York Magazine and CNET’s science editor Jackson Ryan both take a temperate, evidence-based look at why a lab leak should not be ruled out as one possible origin of SARS-CoV-2. Both articles look at the best arguments for and against the lab-leak theory. Baker has written on the dangers of researching infectious diseases and points out that accidents have happened before.

Whether one agrees with the lab-leak hypothesis or not, as Baker points out, the key point is there should have been an investigation a year ago:

It has been a full year, 80 million people have been infected, and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place. We still know very little about the origins of this disease …

If one of the first thoughts that goes through the head of a lab director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is that the new coronavirus could have come from her lab, then we are obliged to entertain the scientific possibility that it could indeed have come from her lab. Right then, there should have been a comprehensive, pockets-inside-out, fully public investigation of the Virology Institute, along with the other important virus labs in Wuhan, including the one close by the seafood market, headquarters of the Wuhan CDC…It didn’t happen. The Wuhan Institute of Virology closed down its databases of viral genomes, and the Chinese Ministry of Education sent out a directive: Any paper that traces the origin of the virus must be strictly and tightly managed.

Nicholson Baker, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis For decades, scientists have been hot-wiring viruses in hopes of preventing a pandemic, not causing one. But what if …?” at New York Magazine

Another instance of the suppression of scientific information was the online publication of the coronavirus genome, which would provide vital information on making a vaccine, as well as the likely animal species the virus came from. On January 3, 2020, the China CDC received a full genetic sequence of the virus, but did not release it publicly. Professor Zhang Youngzhen of Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, who had provided the China CDC with one of the genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2, published the sequence online on January 11.

There is some question as to whether Zhang’s lab was shut down by authorities for circumventing official channels. In an interview with TIME Magazine in August, Zhang says they were not shut down, and he points out that he had uploaded the virus genome to the NIH repository prior to publishing it online. The genome strongly suggests that the virus came from a bat. It has a 96% similarity to a SARS-like coronavirus discovered in 2012 when miners were cleaning a bat-infested cave several hundred miles away from Wuhan.

Prior to the release of the genetic sequence, according to Bitter Winter, “The Hubei Health Commission ordered all genomics companies that had been contacted on December 26 to stop their tests and destroy the materials they received (which would have proved that data about the virus were already available from late December).” It was around this time that eight doctors in Wuhan alerted people online about the SARS-like disease they were seeing in patients. The doctors were reprimanded for “spreading rumors.”

Among those was Dr. Li Wenliang who himself died of COVID-19 in February 2020. A gag order was instituted and censors blocked anything said online that was related to the virus.

By January 20, 2020 Dr. Zhang Nanshan, a top Chinese medical expert, announced that the virus is spread by human-to-human contact. But sources indicate officials in China knew this long before the announcement. Unfortunately, prior to the official announcement—but after it had become evident that the virus was contagious—the Wuhan local government allowed several large gatherings for Lunar New Year, including a “10,000 Families Banquet”, which was an attempt by the city to set a Guinness world record for greatest number of dishes served at an event.

Then, in February 2020, a paper published by scientists Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao said the SARS-CoV-2 virus (called the 2019 nCoV coronavirus at the time) likely came from one of the two laboratories in Wuhan that were conducting research in bat coronaviruses. The paper was taken down from China’s internet, but can be viewed in the Internet Archive.

According to the Associated Press investigation, internal documents show the publication of this paper initiated tighter regulations from the CCP:

“The notice, obtained by the AP and marked “not to be made public,” was far more sweeping in scope than the earlier CDC notices, applying to all universities, companies and medical and research institutions.

“The order said communication and publication of research had to be orchestrated like “a game of chess” under instructions from Xi, and propaganda and public opinion teams were to “guide publication.” It went on to warn that those who publish without permission, “causing serious adverse social impact, shall be held accountable.”

Dake Kang, Maria Cheng and Sam McNeil, “China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins” at Associated Press

What Can We Learn Going Forward?

The World Health Organization’s international team recently arrived in Wuhan to conduct an investigation but it’s still unknown how much access they will have to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Huanan Market, or data from Chinese scientists. One thing the team will be looking at is hospital records before December. Both the U.S. and Italy retested flu test samples taken last fall for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The U.S. confirmed cases from February, indicating the virus was likely circulating in January. This would be an easy test for China to do and would determine when the coronavirus started circulating in Wuhan. However, the CCP has not been forthcoming with this information.

What we do know, based on serological samples, is that the number of cases in Wuhan is likely ten times greater than official numbers indicate. Reports from citizen journalists indicate the death rate is likely higher too. Additionally, an article in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases indicates that the coronavirus was still circulating in Wuhan in May after the government lifted the lockdown in Wuhan in April and claimed the disease defeated.

There have been examples of scientific successes during the pandemic, both in China, with the rapid sequencing of the virus genome and sharing early clinical knowledge, and around the world with the development of mRNA vaccines and the implementation of life-saving clinical practices. All this has led to a decrease in the overall mortality rate of COVID-19. But these successes came from collaboration and sharing vital information not suppression and secrecy.

Further reading: Lawyer turned citizen journalist in China turns up in jail She has been sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a crime in China. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

How China Has Tried To Suppress Coronavirus Science