Top officials of the Chinese government by January 14 knew that the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan could snowball into a pandemic, yet they kept the world in dark from the unfolding catastrophe for the next six days, The Associated Press (AP) has reported on the basis of retrospective infection data.

The report cited Chinese media and claimed there was enough data to prove that COVID-19 was spreading person-to-person as people who had never been to Wuhan’s animal market contracted the disease as early as December, yet the Chinese government hid the fact from the public and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

President Xi Jinping warned the public on the seventh day — January 20 — but by that time, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence internal documents revealed.


That delay from January 14 to January 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials at all levels in confronting the outbreak, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.

But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time — the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2.1 million people and taken more than 147,000 lives.

Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, has said that had they taken action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient. “We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan’s medical system.”

Moreover, the Chinese Center for Disease Control had stopped registering any cases from Wuhan’s local hospitals from January 5 to 17. However, thousands of patients were admitted to hospitals not just in Wuhan but all over China during that period.

It is understood that doctors in local hospitals feared that they might receive the same punishment for rumor-mongering as the eight doctors, including Dr Li Wenliang, who tried to alert the public before any official authorities.

It’s uncertain whether it was local officials who failed to report cases or national officials who failed to record them. It’s also not clear exactly what officials knew at the time in Wuhan, which only opened back up last week with restrictions after its quarantine.

But what is clear, experts say, is that China’s rigid controls on information, bureaucratic hurdles and a reluctance to send bad news up the chain of command muffled early warnings.