A trove of newly-leaked documents detail how China bungled its handling of the pandemic’s early days — including lowballing COVID-19 data and taking weeks to diagnose new cases, according to a report on Monday.
The 117 pages of internal docs obtained by CNN outline how health officials in Hubei, where the virus was first detected, were hampered by chronic underfunding, leading to gaps in staffing and testing equipment.
“It was clear they did make mistakes — and not just mistakes that happen when you’re dealing with a novel virus — also bureaucratic and politically-motivated errors in how they handled it,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the outlet.
The papers, from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reveal inconsistencies between what officials knew at the start of the outbreak and what they publicly reported, the report said.
Chinese officials “seemed actually to minimize the impact of the epidemic at any moment in time,” including by not including the number of suspected cases in its total at first, said William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.
A report from Hubei marked “internal document, please keep confidential” shows how local health officials on Feb. 10 reported 5,918 new coronavirus cases — while the publicly reported number was just 2,478, according to CNN.
“China had an image to protect internationally, and lower-ranking officials had a clear incentive to under-report — or to show their superiors that they were under-reporting — to outside eyes,” said Andrew Mertha, director of the China Studies Program at John Hopkins University.
By mid-February, officials did improve the system and fired top health officials in Hubei who would have been responsible for the reporting, the outlet reported.
The documents also reveal how it took an average of 23.2 days to diagnose cases in the first months of the outbreak, causing the government to use outdated figures to determine how to respond to the unfolding crisis.
“You’re looking at data that’s three weeks old and trying to make a decision for today,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The report notes that the system improved by March 7, with over 80 percent of the new confirmed cases diagnosed being recorded in the system that same day.
Also, the papers show how Hubei was hit with a previously-undisclosed outbreak of influenza in December, potentially complicating the work of officials on the lookout for new viruses.
The files show that health officials didn’t realize the magnitude of the outbreak or that it would evolve into a global crisis.
“They had a massive run on the medical system. They were overwhelmed,” said Dali Yang of the Council of Foreign Relations.