Study exposes terrible effect of Beijing delays

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th April, 2020)

China might have cut the number of coronavirus cases by 95 per cent if it had acted immediately after notifying the World Health Organisation (WHO), says a study.

Even intervening a week earlier than it did could have slashed cases by almost two-thirds, according to research by British and Chinese experts at Southampton University.

Instead, Communist Party leaders tried to cover up the eruption of the virus in Wuhan with catastrophic consequences for the rest of the world.

The impact is underlined by a further study into 32,583 cases in Wuhan, which shows the consequences of China’s failure to curb infection over the lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions of people move around the country.

This shows a trickle of confirmed cases in early January, followed by an explosion in days after the Chunyun festive period, believed to be the world’s biggest annual migration of people.

‘We don’t know if this disease could have been checked but certainly the Chinese dictatorship failed to take the actions expected of a responsible government,’ said Lianchao Han, a leading pro-democracy activist.

Covid-19 is thought to have emerged by mid-November, with the World Health Organisation notified on December 31. But Chinese doctors who raised the alarm were arrested, scientists were ordered not to share data and evidence of human transmission suppressed until January 20.

Leaked documents last week showed that even after Chinese officials knew they faced a major epidemic, they delayed warning the public for another six days. During this period, Wuhan even held a mass banquet for 40,000 citizens.

This followed two weeks during which no new cases were registered despite hundreds of patients appearing in hospitals and medical staff becoming infected – a clear sign of human transmission. 

The Southampton University study found there could have been 67 times more cases if officials had not imposed tough measures such as lockdown, social isolation and travel restrictions.

But the study concludes: ‘If interventions in the country could have been conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively – significantly limiting geographical spread of the disease.’

Professor Andy Tatem, an expert in mapping diseases, said: ‘If it was kept to a small number of cases and the Chinese authorities recognised the disease along with its dangers, and they could have locked down before their new year, it is possible it could have been contained,’ he said.

But Tatem, noting that other countries such as Britain and the US faltered in their response, added that it was impossible to draw firm conclusions. ‘We will never know if it could have been stopped completely.’

Professor Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute, said: ‘We can hold China responsible for how it dealt with this disease once it knew about human-to-human transmission – and there is clear evidence that was from end of December.’

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