Leaked internal documents reveal that China underreported coronavirus cases during the early days of the emerging outbreak and mishandled the crisis as cases began to crop up beyond China’s borders.
On February 10, when there were still fewer than 400 cases of the virus outside of mainland China, China reported 2,478 new cases, bringing the total above 40,000 cases worldwide. Meanwhile, local health authorities in the province of Hubei recorded 5,918 new cases the same day, well below the country’s official total, according to 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The documents were obtained by CNN through an anonymous whistleblower, who said they work in the Chinese healthcare system.
Hubei’s provincial capital is the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated. The first known case of a patient exhibiting coronavirus symptoms occurred on December 1 of last year in Wuhan, according to a Lancet medical journal study.
The coronavirus death toll for Hubei at the beginning of March is also muddied by inconsistencies in the figures released to the public versus the internal figures. As of March 7, the province’s official total death toll since the outbreak began was recorded as 2,986, but the internal documents record it as 3,456 deaths.
Hubei was simultaneously battling an unusually large influenza outbreak, cases spiking to 20 times the level of the previous year and overtaxing the country’s health system.
Meanwhile, the documents reveal how inefficiency and a lack of resources caused fatal delays that hobbled China’s response to the pandemic in the late winter and early spring.
The average time required to process a coronavirus case was 23.3 days during the early months of the pandemic. Also, due to a lack of personal protective equipment, testing of virus samples was delayed until the samples were made inactive.
In April, the Chinese government went on the attack in response to U.S. criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, claiming China had become a “victim” of disinformation surrounding the pandemic.
The same month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. “strongly believed” China flouted World Health Organization rules by neglecting to report on the outbreak in a “timely fashion,” and did not report on the community spread of the virus “for a month until it was in every province inside of China.”