While it was already known that Chinese authorities censored Wuhan’s whistleblowers in December, new revelations prove that the first case of Covid-19 dates back to November. Story of these first days, when everything changed
The man, a 65-year-old trader working in the Huanan indoor market, arrived at Wuhan Central Hospital on December 16. Both of his lungs were infected and he had a fever, but the antibiotics he was given didn’t work, says Ai Fen, director of the emergency department in an interview published last week in Chinese and since censored.
Eleven days later, she saw another patient arrive with similar symptoms, then five more the next day. These mysterious cases of pneumonia all had a connection with the Huanan market, located less than two kilometers from the hospital. At the same time, the other medical centers in Wuhan were undergoing a similar assault.
The Patient Zero
But the very first case, that of a 55-year-old resident of Hubei, appeared on November 17, a month earlier than previously announced. New data compiled in an internal report of the Chinese government, published last Friday by the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post, prove it.
On December 20, there were 60 cases. During the last two weeks of the year, their number began to increase exponentially, reaching 266 cases as of December 31, 2019. Puzzled, Ai Fen sent a sample taken from a patient to a laboratory in Beijing. She received the results on December 30: they indicated infection with a SARS-affiliated coronavirus.
Now alarmed, she posted a photo of the medical report to a private group on the social network WeChat, which was shared by several of her colleagues, including ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who later died of the disease.
She also told members of her department to put on masks and alerted her superiors, who summoned her three days later to reprimand her for “spreading rumors“. In Wuhan, other doctors were starting to sound the alarm. But nothing worked.
The province was preparing to hold its annual parliamentary session and to celebrate the Chinese New Year: no incident was to disturb these events.
On January 3, the Wuhan Health Commission issued a directive prohibiting medical personnel from spreading information about the new virus to avoid causing panic. Some hospitals have also discreetly changed the diagnosis of the first patients, moving it from viral pneumonia to a simple “infection”.
The provincial congress meeting was held as scheduled from January 6 to 17, and on January 18, a giant Chinese New Year banquet gathered tens of thousands of families in Wuhan.
Behind the scenes, the response was organized, however. Huanan market was closed on January 1, the genome of the new virus was decoded the next day, the Chinese Center for Disease Control activated its emergency plan on January 6, and President Xi Jinping personally took the lead of the response on January 7. But none of this has been publicly announced.
Officially, China always claimed in mid-January to have only sixty cases. She waited until January 9 to announce the emergence of a new coronavirus and until January 12 to share her genome with the rest of the world.
“Responses prepared in advance”
Yuen Kwok-Yung, a Hong Kong virologist, went to Wuhan on January 17 to investigate the virus. “All the places we visited seemed to be on the show,” he recently told the Caixin newspaper.
Whenever we asked a question, the answers seemed to be recited and prepared in advance. ” Local officials kept repeating that they had received test kits only the day before and therefore could not comment on the actual number of cases, he said.
During this critical phase to contain the virus, Chinese authorities also continued to deny the existence of human-to-human spread. However, the clues had started to accumulate. On December 8, a man affected by new pneumonia said he had never been to the Huanan market.
In early January, a patient infected 14 healthcare workers during a brain operation in Wuhan. And on January 12, Yuen Kwok-Yung discovered a family of six at the Shenzhen hospital who had all contracted Covid-19, while only one of them had gone to Wuhan.
It was not until January 20 that China finally recognized the existence of human-to-human transmission. The day before, the assessment had suddenly risen to 136 cases. On January 23, Wuhan City and much of Hubei Province were placed in quarantine. If the authorities had acted faster, “the number of patients could have been massively reduced,” said the head of the Chinese task force against the coronavirus, Zhong Nanshan, recently.