In the wake of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, a chilling revelation has emerged, casting a shadow over China’s handling of the outbreak’s early stages. Documents indicate that Chinese researchers had successfully isolated and mapped the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, at least two weeks before Beijing officially acknowledged the virus’s existence to the international community. This delay, motivated by a desire to protect national reputation, has been criticized for prioritizing political considerations over global health and safety, ultimately contributing to the rapid and deadly spread of the virus.
In December 2019, Dr. Lili Ren, a researcher from the Beijing-based Institute of Pathogen Biology, part of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, made a critical scientific discovery. She uploaded a nearly complete sequence of the Covid-19 virus to GenBank, a U.S. government-run database. However, despite this significant scientific achievement, the Chinese government continued to downplay the severity of the outbreak, publicly describing it as a case of viral pneumonia of unknown origin.
The implications of this delay are profound and far-reaching. The two-week period in which China withheld this critical genetic data from the world represents a dark chapter in the global health narrative. Specialists agree that earlier access to the virus’s genetic sequence could have significantly accelerated the development of diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. The world lost precious time during these crucial early weeks, time that could have been used to better prepare and possibly mitigate the catastrophic impact of the pandemic.
Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, underscored the gravity of the situation. “It underscores how cautious we have to be about the accuracy of the information that the Chinese government has released,” he said. Bloom emphasized the importance of transparency, stating, “It’s important to keep in mind how little we know.”
The Chinese government’s response to the unfolding crisis has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. Officials claim that China’s COVID response policies are “science-based, effective, and consistent with China’s national realities.” However, this assertion stands in stark contrast to the actions taken during the pandemic’s early days, which have been seen as an attempt to protect China’s image at the expense of global health.
Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University, highlighted the impact of having the virus information earlier. “Having the virus information two weeks earlier would have helped in the early stages of the outbreak,” he said, particularly with putting a more effective testing regimen in place. This sentiment was echoed by Bloom, who noted that “immediate public release of the sequence could have accelerated by several weeks the development of COVID-19 vaccines that saved thousands of lives per week in the United States alone.”
The handling of Dr. Ren’s sequence submission further complicates the narrative. The sequence was deleted from the database on January 16, 2020, after the National Institutes of Health requested more technical details and did not receive a response. The reasons behind the lack of response and the subsequent deletion of the sequence remain unclear, contributing to a growing sense of mistrust and uncertainty about the transparency of data shared by the Chinese government.
The prioritization of national interests over the lives and safety of people worldwide represents a significant and cynical breach of trust by China on the world stage. The revelations about China’s early knowledge of the Covid-19 virus serve as a grim reminder of the potential consequences of prioritizing political interests over the collective well-being of the global community.