White pape press (Photo: Global Times)
An official document on Sunday revealed for the first time that researchers from a high-level expert team organized by China’s top national health body confirmed that the coronavirus was transmissible among humans at midnight on January 19, just hours before they notified the public, and less than a month before the experts were alerted by the newly-discovered disease.
According to the document released by China’s State Council Information Office on Sunday, experts dispatched by China’s National Health Commission (NHC) to Wuhan at the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak confirmed the novel coronavirus could be transmitted between humans on January 19, one day before the commission held a press conference for the team headed by Zhong Nanshan, China’s leading respiratory disease specialist, who made the information public on the team's behalf.
Delaying the release of crucial facts about the virus has been used as ammunition for the foreign media’s attacks against China, accusing the nation of “covering up” key facts regarding the epidemic at its early stages.
Before January 19, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to indicate that the virus could be transmitted by humans; to make sure that the virus had such qualities, researchers need to find out a clear transmission chain between humans; and another clear sign is the infection of medical staff, said Wang Guangfa, a leading Chinese respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital in Beijing, who was also among the first group of experts dispatched by the NHC to Wuhan in early January.
Wang said that when they landed in Wuhan in early January, they found the number of fever patients soared during that time, and also found patients who had no direct exposure to the Huanan wet market, a place initially believed to have reported the virus first. “But the evidence was not sufficient.” He said that it had to be left to science to decide whether the virus is capable of human-to-human transmission, as any abrupt decision will cause unimaginable consequences.
According to the document, the NHC on January 14 required Wuhan and the whole Hubei Province to enhance their preparation against the virus, as “there was great uncertainties, also the ability and routes of the virus to transmit via humans still needed to be investigated with the possibility of the viral spread accelerating not being excluded.”
Six days later, Zhong confirmed the fact, saying on January 20 that two cases in Guangdong Province were confirmed to be infections via people-to-people transmission.
"The patients who had not been to Wuhan became infected, respectively, after their family members traveled to Wuhan and were infected by the virus," Zhong told the media.
Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), said in an interview with CGTN in April that in a meeting on January 19, the experts discussed the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.
"The problem is the seriousness… we realized the virus was a very efficient human-to-human transmitter," he said.
Experts had always been alert to the unknown virus, and their knowledge about the new virus was also to be updated as time proceeded; viruses evolve fast, so how we can jump to a conclusion when it is still lurking, said Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As scholars, we can only race against the virus, adjust our knowledge about the new virus and keep denying our previous understanding of it,” said Zeng.