Beijing acted against the coronavirus with stunning force, as its official narratives recount. But not before a political logjam had allowed a local outbreak to kindle a global pandemic.
By Chris Buckley, David D. Kirkpatrick, Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernández
The most famous doctor in China was on an urgent mission.
Celebrated as the hero who helped uncover the SARS epidemic17 years ago, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, now 84, was under orders to rush to Wuhan, a city in central China, and investigate a strange new coronavirus. His assistant photographed the doctor on the night train, eyes closed in thought, an image that would later rocket around China and burnish Dr. Zhong’s reputation as the nation’s medic riding to the rescue.
China’s official history now portrays Dr. Zhong’s trip as the cinematic turning point in an ultimately triumphant war against Covid-19, when he discovered the virus was spreading dangerously and sped to Beijing to sound the alarm. Four days later, on Jan. 23, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sealed off Wuhan.
That lockdown was the first decisive step in saving China. But in a pandemic that has since claimed more than 1.7 million lives, it came too late to prevent the virus from spilling into the rest of the world.
The first alarm had actually sounded 25 days earlier, exactly a year ago, last Dec. 30. Even before then, Chinese doctors and scientists had been pushing for answers, yet officials in Wuhan and Beijing concealed the extent of infections or refused to act on warnings.
Politics stymied science, in a tension that would define the pandemic. China’s delayed initial response unleashed the virus on the world and foreshadowed battles between scientists and political leaders over transparency, public health and economics that would play out across continents.
This article — drawing on Chinese government documents, internal sources, interviews, research papers and books, including neglected or censored public accounts — examines those 25 days in China that changed the world.
Chinese scientists and private laboratories identified the coronavirus and mapped its genes weeks before Beijing acknowledged the severity of the problem. Scientists were talking to their peers, trying to raise alarms — and in some cases, they did, if at a price.
“We also spoke the truth,” said Prof. Zhang Yongzhen, a leading virologist in Shanghai. “But nobody listened to us, and that’s really tragic.”
As political hostilities erupted between China and the United States, scientists on both sides still leaned on global networks built up over decades and sought to share information — with top scientists recognizing early on that the virus was probably contagious among humans.
On Jan. 8, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, George F. Gao, became emotional after acknowledging that danger during a call with his American counterpart, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, according to two people familiar with Dr. Redfield’s account of the call.
Yet neither Dr. Redfield nor Dr. Gao, each constrained by politics, signaled a public alarm. In Beijing, top health officials had received ominous reports from doctors in Wuhan and had sent two expert teams to investigate. Yet they lacked the political clout to challenge Wuhan officials and held their tongues in public.
To a degree, Dr. Zhong’s trip to Wuhan was less medical than political. He already knew the virus was spreading between people; his real purpose was to break the logjam in China’s opaque system of government.
“There is certainly human-to-human transmission,” Dr. Zhong wrote in a report that he drafted on the train before reaching Wuhan, according to a recent Chinese book written with his cooperation. “Remind the public not to go to Wuhan except for special reasons, reduce outings and avoid gatherings.”
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