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How China made Covid worse The regime's deceit stalled the pandemic response

Hector Retamal/AFP/ Getty


December 9, 2021   8 mins

Two years ago this week, a middle-aged man in Wuhan caught a strange respiratory disease. The 41-year-old accountant was called Chen and he worked for his family firm, commuted to work by public transport and shopped in a sleek modern supermarket rather than a traditional market selling wild animals. He had not travelled outside the city in the days before catching the disease beyond a short trip to some hills north of Wuhan and — bar one relative working in healthcare — had no obvious links to high-risk settings.

This is the official Chinese narrative: that Covid 19 should be traced back to this “earliest onset date” when Chen visited a hospital dental clinic. The World Health Organisation promoted this story in its study group report earlier this year into origins of the virus, influencing global discussion. Yet this “first case” merely highlights the duplicity of Beijing in obscuring the truth about the birth of this deadly disease — along with the complicity of the global public health body and so much of the scientific establishment in promoting the Communist regime’s deceptive stance.

The extent of the dishonesty became startlingly obvious after the WHO’s patsy report was published in March. Data for Chen, this heavily-scrutinised patient, seemed confused since the sample sequence listed in its documents belonged to another man who had died after falling sick later in December 2019. Chen’s profile actually matched the sequence of a patient listed as becoming ill on December 16. This was one of the cases that frightened local doctors — leading ophthalmologist Li Wenliang to warn colleagues about a contagious new virus, only for him to be detained by police for “rumour-mongering”. His death several weeks later from the disease sparked an eruption of grief and fury on social media.

Chen’s case could not be hidden, since it had been highlighted by Ai Fen, another doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, who was also reprimanded by party chiefs after sharing details about the alarming new virus. The stricken accountant, who lived in the dense residential district closest to the Wuhan Institute of Virology site in the southern part of the city, had no known links to the infamous Huanan Seafood Market. After failing to respond to treatment, he travelled some distance from his district hospital to the renowned emergency department at the major hospital where his relative worked.

Last month, Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, declared in Science that Chen was not really the first known case. He argued correctly that the WHO had bungled its chronology — but then pointed instead to a female seafood vendor who fell ill on December 11, saying Chen developed his symptoms five days later. The existence of this new Patient Zero sparked excitable headlines around the world about the pandemic being triggered by a spillover from animals sold at the bustling market in the central Chinese city. “The latest report adds weight to the theory that the virus originated from wildlife sold at the market, rather than as a leak from a Wuhan virology lab,” stated The Guardian.

Yet as one expert told me, this latest study — eagerly lapped up by docile science correspondents — simply “piled wishful thinking on deception”. The market was discounted even by Chinese authorities last year as birthplace of the pandemic after being challenged by academic studies, and again in a paper co-authored by the country’s top infectious diseases expert six months ago. It was more likely to have been the location of a super-spreader event. Despite Beijing’s efforts to control the narrative, stifle dissent and suppress data, there is still considerable evidence in circulation to counter the concept that either of these two cases was Patient Zero.

I have previously revealed how Professor Yu Chuanhua, a professor of biostatistics at Wuhan University placed in charge of collating official data, told a Chinese health journal that he had 47,000 cases on his database by late February. These included two more suspected cases on November 14 and 21. The Health Times article even included a screenshot exposing personal details of one of them: Patient Su, a 61-year-old who lived about a mile from a lab run by China’s Centre for Disease Control and less than three miles from the downtown Wuhan Institute of Virology site — but more than 13 miles from the wildlife market.

Other early cases included Connor Reed, a 25-year-old Briton teaching in Wuhan, who said he grew ill on November 25 and that his condition was later confirmed as the new coronavirus. US intelligence was reported to have issued alerts to allies at end of that month after analysing communication intercepts and satellite images collected in preceding weeks. The Lancet published a landmark early pandemic paper by Chinese scientists on a cluster of initial Wuhan cases, which recorded the first patient on December 1 — and stated that three of the first four cases had no confirmed exposure to the market. Then a well-sourced article in the South China Morning Post disclosed nine confirmed cases by the end of November, involving four men and five women aged between 39 and 79 with the first diagnosis on November 17. Finally it was discovered that specimen data records from four Covid patients were created on December 10 by scientists at a Wuhan military hospital, including for a woman aged 21 listed as coming from close to Wuhan Institute of Virology’s older city centre site and another high-security university lab carrying out bat coronavirus experiments on genetically-modified mice.

There were also whispers among well-connected scientists. Several academics spoke publicly of hearing about the disease by mid-December — including Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University honoured by China for work on the first SARS epidemic earlier this century, who said he knew about it on December 15. Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law in Washington, said he heard in mid-December from a friend in Wuhan about a novel coronavirus and that “it looks very serious”. It seems strange that George Gao, the Oxford-educated virologist who is director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, claimed to have found out about the disease more than two weeks later, on December 30 — the day before the WHO was tipped off by Taiwan.

The issue of early cases is clouded by geo-politics and an intensifying superpower struggle. Donald Trump’s outbursts — “the China virus” — during his presidency were often intemperate, and tended to inflame opinions on both sides. Yet his administration concluded with a carefully-worded State Department document claiming researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology “became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses”. David Asher, who led the inquiries, told me three scientists were believed to have fallen ill in the second week of November, 2019, with “credible” information from a trusted foreign source that the wife of one researcher died later that month.

Scientific analysis based on dynamics of disease outbreaks and genome evolution suggests a most likely emergence between mid-October and mid-November — which tallies with censored reports, circumstantial evidence, leaks and US intelligence claims. Chen’s case actually implies that the virus had spread significantly around the city by the second week of December, since he lived almost 20 miles from the centre and the notorious market.

None of this proves anything definitive about the first case of SARS-Cov-2 — the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid — let alone its origins. Worobey argues it may still be possible to obtain conclusive evidence from these late December cases, although evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom is more pessimistic. “Normally in an outbreak investigation you trace the contacts of known patients backward in time to find earlier cases,” he tweeted recently. “But for SARS-CoV-2 investigations in Wuhan, it’s going in the opposite direction!”

Yet this vexatious issue does raise two big questions. First, why has China gone to such lengths to conceal crucial data about the origins of this disease, given the critical importance in understanding the cause of this public health disaster? Certainly, it is impossible to ignore the coincidence that it erupted in the city that hosts Asia’s biggest bat coronavirus research centre, located far from the dark places where scientists from the lab and their associates collect samples from bats in southern China and — according to recent revelations — possibly eight other nations. Not least when there are so many unanswered riddles swirling around the secretive Wuhan labs over the real nature of their research, the erratic behaviour of their most prominent scientist and their true relationship with key Western funding bodies.

We know also from Chinese media reports — later deleted from the internet — that Chinese firms were sequencing the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 before the WHO even learned about the new disease, with one passing its findings to the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. And it is clear from early cases involving infected medical workers and family members that human transmission was known about well before such critical information was shared beyond its borders. Bear in mind that modelling experts suggest the number of global cases could have been cut by 95% if China had moved to contain the disease three weeks earlier instead of pressing ahead with New Year festivities that involve the biggest annual migration of humans on the planet.

Nor is there any sign yet of an animal host for natural zoonotic transmission. So the second, profoundly-disturbing question raised by this issue is to ask why leading scientists and their funding bodies effectively colluded with China to stifle public debate over a possible laboratory cause of this pandemic — aided by swathes of the news media, leading science journals, science administrators and most of the Left that seemed to loathe Trump more than a horribly repressive Chinese dictatorship.

A series of email conversations have emerged through freedom of information requests showing how key scientists held discussions that led to publication of influential papers dismissing “conspiracy theories” — despite several of those figures initially fearing that some kind of lab incident sparked this public health disaster. Participants included Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases expert and presidential adviser; Francis Collins, head of the major US funding body that backed high-risk experiments into bat coronaviruses in Wuhan; Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of The Wellcome Trust; and Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific officer.

The latest communications obtained by US Right To Know, a public health campaign group, disclose how James Le Duc, the former director of a top-level biosafety lab in Texas who had trained Wuhan researchers, told the ex-president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene last year that it was “certainly possible a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government”.

Intriguingly, soon after the pandemic erupted, Le Duc wrote to Yuan Zhiming, head of biosafety at Wuhan Institute of Virology and its most senior Communist party official, with a barrage of questions about samples, security, inventories and handling of live viruses. These included asking about disgruntled employees with access to coronavirus stocks, signs of unusual illnesses among staff, team members visiting the wildlife market and if anyone was “conducting gain of function research, recombination studies or any other studies that may have resulted in the creation of the nCoV [novel coronavirus]”?  Le Duc said he was being peppered with questions from “senior officials and major reputable papers” and stressed the need to “aggressively address these rumours and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation”.

Instead, China built a wall of lies and obfuscation. The utter failure of the Western scientific establishment to follow evidence wherever it led — whether for personal, political or financial reasons — helped impede investigations and, given their lack of transparency, duped the public at a time when we need trust in our political and scientific leaders. Little wonder Gilles Demaneuf, a member of the Drastic team of researchers that winkled out critical evidence to challenge China’s narrative, argues the response would have been far tougher if the pandemic had emerged elsewhere. “It would be deemed unacceptable if it was in Sierra Leone or Pakistan, so why should it be different with China,” he asked.

The most dramatic Drastic revelation came two months ago with details of a 2018 submission to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by EcoHealth Alliance — the New York-based body headed by Peter Daszak, the controversial British scientist who has led efforts to dampen talk of lab leaks. It sought $14.2m for work with his long-term collaborators in Wuhan on a scheme to insert rare cleavage sites into SARS-like coronaviruses collected in the field, then conduct experiments on live bats. This particular request — supposedly aimed at “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses” — was rejected on risk grounds. Curiously, there has been fierce debate over the furin cleavage site on SARS-CoV-2, a feature not found on similar types of coronavirus that allows it to enter so efficiently into human cells.

Two years on, it remains impossible to prove the cause of this catastrophe. The Communist regime led by President Xi Jinping should be a pariah for blocking investigations to discover the cause of this cruel disease given the terrible impact on the planet (and indeed for the crimes against humanity being inflicted on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang). Instead, it is preparing for another parade of its power with a global showcase as host of the Winter Olympics. Meanwhile we see how the WHO still kowtows to Beijing, skipping the use of ‘Xi’ when rifling through the Greek alphabet to name the latest variant of the virus ‘Omicron’ in deference to China’s leader. This symbolises how as wave after wave of this mutating virus washes over the world, there seems still the most astonishing global complacency over Beijing’s duplicitous actions that, regardless of the origins, have led to millions of fatalities.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Once again I say thank you to Ian Birrell and his colleagues for this fine investigative journalism.
Here is the question I’d like to ask Mr. Birrell if I ever met him: how do you plan to publicize these discoveries about the possible origin of the virus, China’s role in hiding the facts and the possible involvement of Western health agencies in funding gain-of-function coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute?
Normally that would be a dumb question, right? Mr. Birrell would publish summaries of his research in major news outlets, longer accounts in major scientific journals and perhaps journals specializing in global affairs. He’d also appear on national TV and perhaps before Congress.
How many of these outlets are open to him today? I would guess the MSM will ignore his discoveries. He might get time on Fox and he can publish in the few smaller journals, such as Unherd, that aren’t irrevocably left-leaning. I suspect many mainstream scientific journals are closed to him (The Lancet, for example, appears to be politically compromised) and if they feel pressured to publish this research it might be as a small article with an innocuous title. So far as politics goes, a Democrat-dominated Congress won’t touch this story is my guess.
So how does the truth come out to a mass audience? Do we have to wait until the Republicans are next in power? Are the higher reaches of the US (and UK) government so compromised by association with the Wuhan Institute that even a Republican administration would rather bury this story?
Sad I should even have to wonder about these questions. Perhaps I’m even a racist for questioning China’s official narrative.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Great comment. I suspect the higher reaches of the US government, particularly, are so compromised, and our media such a pathetic disgrace, that this story will stay out of major news outlets

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

To be fair, I saw an article in the FT a couple of weeks ago that more or less summarised Birrell’s reporting from last January. So only about a year behind


rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

… although, to be fair, it’s still a great article

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Excellent article once again from Ian Birrell.
And isn’t The Guardian just a woeful media outlet.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

The remit of the The Guardian lately is ‘speaking truth to power’, yet they will not go near China’s culpability in Covid, and scream ‘RACIST!’ at anyone who does
Disgusting collusion/ cowardice

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

Birrell is as mainstream media as it gets. Hating China is what the MSM wants and it’s not like the Guardian is opposed to that.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Hating China is not what the corporate media (mainly left) wants, especially The Guardian. Just rubbish.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  rodney foy

I’m not going to wade through these, but I do note that they are all from 2021, when the reality slapped corporate media through the face that the Wuhan lab leak was more than credible. The Guardian is no longer a credible news outlet to those with a more questioning bent.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago

You probably wouldn’t forgive yourself if you did take the time to wade. Me too!

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

Of course it is. In fact the guardian once parachuted a guy into their website who was working for a think thank sponsored by Australian dept of defence. The BBC is largely the same. So those of you who hate the MSM believes it when it suits. The uighers genocide isn’t believed outside the west. Muslim nations commend rather than condemn it. The evidence is one or two photos and satellite photos, of the same quality of the Iraq WMD.

Fighting a Cold War against China, from the other side of the world, is a lesson in stupidity. The ever declining west needs to control its borders, defeat the woke, fix the birthrate and that’s it. Only US imperialism is at stake here, and who cares. China invaded Taiwan, what’s it to you?

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

I suspect that western governments have a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence, and maybe more, that the pandemic originated in the Wuhan laboratories. However, with China having already showed that it will retaliate with severe diplomatic and economic sanctions to any official attempt to question the narrative and with the world economy severely damaged and still fragile from the attempts to contain the virus; it will be sometime yet, if ever, that anyone in power dares speak the truth.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Just an interesting anecdote. This story was told to me at a social event (outdoor) in June 2020, by a business man I know and respect.

In the autumn of 2019 he was negotiating a London property deal with a Chinese businessman. During the negotiations, in October, he visited China and was taken on a tour – Great Wall, Pandas etc. He was temperature checked on checking into every hotel and in some railway stations.

Late in the day the Chinese businessman pulled out of the deal, predicting there would be a major recession in the west in 2HY 2020 which would present better priced opportunities.

The realpolitik is that we have to put up with what China does because their strategic positioning over the last 2 decades (and our abject failure of same) has left us almost powerless to resist,

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Bollis
Orlando Skeete
Orlando Skeete
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

The temperature checking may have been coincidence. I traveled to China a fair bit over the last decade for work, and I remember getting temperature checked most times. It’s theatre a lot of the time, just like the x-ray machines at train stations that no one is actually observing the screens

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

The Wuhan lab books would tell us what was being worked on in the labs. Until WHO has reviewed those lab books, the lab release theory cannot be ruled out.
More importantly, the outbreak demonstrates the importance of international monitoring of all labs manipulating viruses whether or not the virus was released from Wuhan. As we have learnt, this is way more dangerous than say chemical or nuclear weapons development.

Richard Morley
Richard Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

All records & samples that were worked on in the WIV have been destroyed.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Morley

Got a link…?

Richard Morley
Richard Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Please read Sharri Markson’s ‘what really happened in wuhan’
Fantastic book. I consumed it via audible

rodney foy
rodney foy
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

“importance of international monitoring of all labs manipulating viruses”

That’s a really good point. Thanks

jill dowling
jill dowling
2 years ago

Good article, but should be titled “How China made Covid and what did they do to ensure WHO covered it up too?”

Richard Morley
Richard Morley
2 years ago

Please read Sharri Markson’s ‘what really happened in Wuhan’ She has done a great job uncovering the corruption behind it all

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

 â€œIt would be deemed unacceptable if it was in Sierra Leone or Pakistan, so why should it be different with China,” 

There’s the problem; if Sierra Leone or Pakistan unleashed a plague like this on us and then lied about it, they might get condign punishment.
China does a lot of our manufacturing, owns much of our debt, invest in our infrastructure, their students come and keep our universities in profit. They also react furiously to criticism.
China has passed the point where we could tell them off for anything, however egregious.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

The truth is the truth. That is important.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago

OK, if China made Covid worse, then who made Covid bad? Or just who made Covid? The paper trail of US patent applications from 2002 until 2019 regarding Corona viruses and vaccination candidates aimed at human exploitation makes for disturbing reading and conjecture.

Susan Bennett
Susan Bennett
2 years ago

Great article, Ian but no-one wants the truth to come out. There’s a good chance it came from the Wuhan lab, funded by American money and British know-how.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

The Chinese may have delayed and suppressed info for a while, but sent us the DNA sequence on Jan 12th 2020. They locked down Wuhan.
The Oxford lab took it seriously and started designing their vaccine THAT WEEKEND.
There was a major outbreak in Italy. No UK lock-down.
Eventually lock-down 23rd March – but still airports open.
Whether or not China delayed, suppressed information etc is largely irrelevant as they told us what was happening and we failed to act.
Analogy: The manufacturer has suppressed info that your model of car has a fault that is occasionally fatal for 3 months, but then tells you.
You hear about failures of the same model.
You continue to drive the car, it fails and you are hurt.
You then blame the accident on their delay, not on your own negligence.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Please read my article (link below). I was in Beijing, with my wife, 13 Jan 2020 to 1 Feb 2020. We saw it.
https://www.anthempressblog.com/2020/07/06/covid-19-china-and-the-new-cold-war-where-to-from-here/

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

According to BBC report, Wuhan lockdown was 23rd Jan 2020. Yes a delay, but it was an unknown virus.
Even when the UK did it’s partial lockdown March 23rd, the borders were still ope, particularly air. Known virus threat.
So, if you attribute mal-intent to the Chinese, why not to UK also?
In choosing between ‘c**k-up’ and ‘conspiracy’ interpretations, always to check the c**k-up option first as this is most likely.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

What wasn’t expanded on in the article was not only the initial obfuscation, but the link between China’s Belt and Road project and the first big Euro outbreak in Northern Italy. Or the fact that some cities in China underwent Draconian lockdowns while the Chinese did nothing to screen passengers for outbound flights from China. The CPC shared exactly the wrong things around this virus, not naively.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

My particular point is that Xi, Jinping took personal charge of the epidemic on 5 January 2020, but the police did not arrive on the gate of the People’s University, to restrict movement and check ID, until 26 January 2020 – the day after Chinese New Year. 21 days is enough time for the virus to have spread from Wuhan via international flights around the world.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago

I arrived with my Chinese wife in Beijing on 13 January 2020., and departed on the last plane out, via Lufthansa, Beijing to Munich, on 1 Feb 2020 at 2.20 am. I wrote an article about what we saw while in Beijing, first on social media in China, then on TV. It was published by Anthem Press, as a blog. PLEASE READ IT
https://www.anthempressblog.com/2020/07/06/covid-19-china-and-the-new-cold-war-where-to-from-here/

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Interesting account. Governments have to join dots to understand a situation and then co-ordinate a response. There are two patterns here – understanding that a pandemic is underway and responding to it and understanding a cluster of illness centred on the research establishments. In China the former started slowly and accelerated decisively leading to China being 215/222 in the list of cases per head of population, only small islands fared better. The latter shows enough smoke to indicate information has been suppressed to avert criticism. The world-wide academic community must, unanimously, make it clear to China that total transparency is a fundamental condition for being part of that community. Currently the most plausible account is that internationally sponsored gain of function research was conducted with a view to finding ways to help medical treatments and there was a lab leak. China will benefit by being transparent.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

I agree with your analysis. My particular point is that Xi, Jinping took personal charge of the epidemic on 5 January 2020, but the police did not arrive on the gate of the People’s University, to restrict movement and check ID, until 26 January 2020 – the day after Chinese New Year. 21 days is enough time for the virus to have spread from Wuhan via international flights around the world.