High-level officials within the Chinese Communist Party were kept in the dark about the dangers of the coronavirus in the first weeks of the outbreak by local officials who feared being retaliated against, according to a report.
An internal report by US intelligence agencies found that officials in the city of Wuhan and Hubei Province, where the virus originated, kept critical information from the party’s leaders, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
The local officials feared reprisals and didn’t want to disrupt a local annual Communist Party meeting taking place in January.
Despite the actions of the local officials, the report supports accusations made by President Trump that Communist Party officials kept information about the spread of the coronavirus under wraps and withheld data from the World Health Organization.
Still, the conduct of the local Chinese officials was a crucial factor in the coronavirus spreading outside mainland China, the report said.
The findings give Chinese President Xi Jinping some wiggle room over his handling of COVID-19 and suggest that perhaps top Chinese officials did not purposely lie about the spread.
Ma Guoqiang (from left), party chief of the COVID-19 epicenter Wuhan, and Jiang Chaoliang, party chief of Hubei Province, attend a provincial meeting in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province.
Medical staff wearing protective clothing to guard against a previously unknown coronavirus arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan.
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“It makes a huge difference if it was Wuhan or Beijing,” Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute who informally advises Trump, told the Times.
The WHO in early January began suspecting that officials in Beijing were holding back information and the government delayed releasing the complete virus genome as they pressed local authorities for more details, the report said.
Beijing began to grasp the severity of the outbreak in mid-January after Thailand reported discovering a case of the coronavirus, and Chinese officials released internal reports of a potential calamity.
At the same time, a Taiwanese official who visited a Wuhan hospital said a Chinese official raised the potential of human-to-human transmission of the virus, even though local officials played down that possibility.
Then, two days later, the Wuhan health commission announced that possibility couldn’t be ruled out after a family in the city became infected.
Beijing ordered a total lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23, and the government stopped selling masks and respirators to other countries and began buying medical supplies from around the world.