Wuhan doctor hailed for first reporting coronavirus defends China’s handling of outbreak saying there was no cover-up

Simone McCarthy
·4-min read

A Wuhan doctor hailed by Chinese state media as the first person to report the Covid-19 outbreak has hit back at international criticism of China’s early handling of the outbreak.

In a widely circulated interview with Global Times, Zhang Jixian, director of respiratory medicine at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, said the country “certainly did not conceal the relevant data on the epidemic”.

“After I first reported the outbreak situation, we started to regularly report the epidemic information to the world beginning from January 3, 2020 … the facts are so clear, how can it be called a cover-up?” said Zhang.

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The article, published on Sunday, comes as the world marks one year since the news of the coronavirus first broke.

Meanwhile two international inquiries that will look into the early phase of the outbreak in China are under way.

Ten international scientists that are part of the WHO-led mission to uncover the origins of the virus are expected to travel to China within weeks as part of an attempt to discover how the virus jumped from animals to people.

That research includes interviewing early patients and revisiting the seafood market where a cluster of early cases was identified to hunt for clues.

The international team has been asked to examine findings from their Chinese counterparts in the hope of boosting international confidence in the investigation.

So far, little data from China’s own investigations has been made public. It remains unclear what level of access the international team will have within China.

Meanwhile, an independent panel evaluating the international handling of Covid-19, created at the request of the WHO’s governing body, is preparing a timeline of the outbreak to clarify the actions taken in the early days and weeks.

Beijing has pledged its support for the WHO investigation into the origins of the virus, but in domestic and diplomatic comments, officials continue to stress that the hunt for the virus’s source may take scientists outside China.

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It has also sought to defend its conduct during those early days, when there was a three-week period between the first official alert about the virus on December 31 and confirmation that it was spreading between people.

China’s state media has marked the occasion by publishing pieces highlighting China’s role countering the virus.

David Bandurski, co-director of the University of Hong Kong-affiliated China Media Project, said this “wave of year-end coverage”, which built on months of coverage focused on China‘s claims of strong leadership in response to the outbreak, was likely to continue through January and beyond.

“The sudden shock Wuhan brought to the propaganda system in January 2020 will now, as China enters 2021, be the foundation of a grand narrative to start a new year,” he said.

While much recent coverage focused on China’s role in the international response to the pandemic, Zhang’s interview looked back at the early days of the crisis in China.

In February she was given an award for flagging up suspicious cases of pneumonia to her superiors. State media reports at the time said she had spotted the first case on December 26 and raised the alarm the following day.

China jails citizen journalist for four years over Wuhan coronavirus reports

But at the time more attention was given to another Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, who was hailed as a whistle-blower after it emerged he had been disciplined for “spreading rumours” by police after warning colleagues about a mystery illness in December.

Several citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan have also been detained as the authorities try to maintain tight control over the narrative. On Monday, blogger Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai on Monday for her reporting from Wuhan.

In the interview, Zhang also discussed the theory that the virus may have entered China via imports of frozen food.

While international experts broadly agree the virus could have started outside China, many remain sceptical that the virus, whose closest known relatives are found in bats that are common in China and Southeast Asia, could have first been carried into China in this way.

But the idea has gained traction recently, as Chinese health officials say they have linked recent outbreaks to contaminated food packaging.

Zhang noted that many of the early cases in Wuhan were linked to a seafood market in the city. “The epidemic in Wuhan may have a lot to do with the cold chain,” she said.

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