Taiwan has strict limits on Chinese involvement in Taiwan companies. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Many people in the West – apparently led on by the US government – believe that the Chinese government covered up information regarding the initial extent of the Covid-19 epidemic in China. Some asserted that the death toll in China was actually orders of magnitude higher.

When that could not be proved, some took to the notion that China kept data regarding human-to-human transmission from the world. The supposed evidence? An e-mail Taiwanese authorities sent to the World Health Organization on December 31.

This e-mail has often been presented as evidence that Taiwan learned of and warned the WHO about human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, but that the WHO ignored it. But as it turns out, the e-mail did not make any such assertion. No one has been able to present evidence of an e-mail from Taiwan to the WHO reporting any information about human-to-human transmission.

The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control has now put up a page indicating the “facts” about that e-mail. As it turns out, Taiwan concedes now that when it sent out the e-mail, it did not have any evidence about what was happening in Wuhan other than “online sources” and “rumors that were circulating.”

The Taiwan CDC insists, however, that because the mainland authorities had used the term “atypical pneumonia,” which was also used in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Taiwan authorities had speculated that human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, was a possibility.

Well, of course transmission was considered a possibility. However, epidemiology and public policy are not about speculations.

No one wants a repeat of the H1N1 fiasco of a few years ago. (See, for example, Sound the Alarm? A Swine Flu Bind, New York Times, 2009; The elusive definition of pandemic influenza, Bulletin of the WHO, 2011; Swine flu: is panic the key to successful modern health policy?, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2010.) What is needed is evidence to inform a commensurate response. This is what the Chinese experts and authorities worked so hard to figure out.

Evidence would soon come forth. Chinese researchers would determine a novel coronavirus to be the cause of these new pneumonia cases on January 8. On January 11, they would publish the sequence to the world. And on January 20, they would confirm human-to-human transmission. (For a detailed review of the Chinese early response, see for example this report.)

The allegation that Taiwan provided early warning of human-to-human transmission that China had covered up thus simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

In the crucial early days of the outbreak, Taiwan did not do work relating to the virus and did not contribute any knowledge to the world regarding the virus. It could not have had “insider” knowledge about human-to-human transmission that would take health workers on the ground another three weeks to obtain.

Below are some more details of Taiwan’s supposedly smoking gun email on China’s cover-up of Covid-19 (Chinese followed by English translation).

新华社北京4月17日电 国台办发言人朱凤莲17日应询向媒体表示,民进党当局声称,台防疫部门曾于去年12月31日向世卫组织发函“示警”新冠肺炎病毒“人传人”,世卫组织未向全球公开这项信息。这些说法完全不符合事实。

Xinhua News 4/17: PRC Taiwan Affairs spokesman Mr Zhu [Fenglian] responding to journalist questions regarding Taiwan’s recently alleged that Taiwan had sent in an e-mail on 12/31 to the WHO to warn of human-to-human transmissions and that the WHO has yet to disclose.

朱凤莲指出,新冠肺炎疫情发生以来,我们及时向世卫组织以及有关国家和地区通报疫情信息。去年12月31日,武汉市卫生健康委在官方网站首次对外发布《关于当前我市肺炎疫情的情况通报》,通报了27例病例,明确说明已采取隔离治疗措施。这既是向社会大众、也是向国际社会公布疫情信息,体现了我们对待疫情公开、透明、负责任的一贯态度。世卫组织当天也获悉有关情况。可以说,武汉卫健委公布的信息,为世卫组织立即决定自1月1日在该组织三个层级组建事故管理支持小组,并进入抗疫紧急状态发挥了关键作用。

Mr Zhu has pointed that since the inception of Covid-19, we have notified the WHO as well as other relevant nations and authorities regarding the epidemic. On 12/31, Wuhan CDC announced on its website the then most up-to-date information regarding 27 mysterious pneumonia cases and clearly detailed the quarantining measures being taken. The reports were presented to the public as well as to the international community and constituted our effort to a transparent and responsible. On the same day, we also sent a report to the WHO. WHO would soon set up IMST (Incident Management Support Team) across the three levels of the organization, putting the organization on an emergency footing for dealing with the outbreak.

朱凤莲说,台方所称12月31日邮件,仅是引述武汉卫健委公布的内容,并没有其他信息,也就是说武汉卫健委发布的信息是台方邮件内容的唯一信息来源。去年12月31日,台卫生部门还向国家卫健委发函了解武汉卫健委公布的信息,国家卫健委通过两岸医药卫生合作协议联系窗口书面回复台方,请其参考武汉卫健委公布的情况通报。事实很清楚,大陆方面首先公布信息,台卫生部门再进行转述,不存在所谓台方首先向世卫组织报告的情况。台方邮件也未提及“人传人”,主要是向世卫组织了解情况。台卫生部门1月4日、6日发新闻稿表示“并没有明显人传人现象及医护人员感染”。3月15日后台方却把去年12月31日转述邮件包装成首先“示警”信息。如果从“示警”角度看,这封邮件也不过是证明了武汉卫健委第一时间向社会公众和国际社会发布信息。可见,民进党当局的炒作是一个伪命题,目的就是作政治文章。一些外国政客跟风炒作,以讹传讹,借此攻击大陆和世卫组织,完全是别有用心的。

Mr Zhu indicates the so-called Taiwan e-mail to the WHO on 12/31 merely quoted the contents of Wuhan CDC’s announcements and contained no other information. To stress, Wuhan’s CDC announcement on its website on 12/31 is the only source for Taiwan’s email to the WHO on 12/31. Taiwan CDC did contact Mr Zhu seeking more information, and through Taiwan Affairs Department, Mr Zhu did direct Taiwan CDC to public bulletins available on Wuhan CDC’s website. The timing is very clear. The mainland side announced information relating to unknown cases about pneumonia to the world first. The Taiwan side then sought more information. Taiwan did not disclose information to the WHO before China had already provided the information to the WHO and the world. Taiwan’s e-mail to the WHO was geared at soliciting information from the WHO and did not make any mention of “human-to-human” transmissions. In press briefings on 1/4 and 1/6, Taiwan CDC had stated that there were “no obvious signs of human-to-human transmissions or transmissions to medical workers.” It is only after 3/15 that Taiwan side began promoting its 12/31 e-mail to the WHO as an “early warning.” That e-mail, however, was not an early warning and if anything confirms the proposition that the earliest warning came from Wuhan CDC. This whole recasting of Taiwan’s e-mail to an early warning is but an attempt for political jockeying….

朱凤莲表示,台方称无法与世卫组织进行沟通,这封邮件却证明此言不实。台湾地区卫生机构通过世卫组织《国际卫生条例》架构下的联络窗口,可以及时获取世卫组织发布的信息并直接向世卫组织更新信息。台湾地区医疗卫生专家一直以适当身份参加世卫组织的会议。从2019年初到2020年3月,16批24人次台湾地区专家参加世卫组织举办的技术会议。大陆方面1月12日至14日即安排台湾专家到武汉实地考察,了解新冠肺炎确诊病人诊治和疫情处置情况。截至4月13日,大陆方面向台湾方面通报疫情信息127次。对这些情况,民进党当局一再回避,讳莫如深,始终不如实向岛内民众说明,不断炒作所谓“防疫缺口”,现在又大肆炒作“邮件示警”,可见其用心并不是公共卫生防疫。其实这些都不难理解,民进党当局这么做,不过是不断暴露“以疫谋独”的政治目的而已。

Mr Zhu also pointed out that the idea that Taiwan authorities have no ability to community with the WHO is also utterly incorrect. Under the international framework provided under the WHO, Taiwan has the ability to communicate with and obtain most updated information with the WHO. Taiwan public health and medical workers have always had ability to join WHO meetings and conferences. From 2019 to March 2020, Taiwan has sent teams of 24 to WHO meetings and conferences some 16 times. From 1/12-1/14, the mainland side has invited Taiwanese experts to Wuhan for visits and studies, to get the most up-to-date information and to see measures we were taking on the ground. By 4/13, the mainland had already given Taiwan 127 official updates. We wish the Taiwan authorities would be clear and transparent about all this to the Taiwan public. It is unfortunate the Taiwan side has chosen to obfuscate truth and try to make political advantage out of this.

朱凤莲强调,世卫组织是由主权国家组成的联合国专门机构。台湾是中国的一部分,其参与世卫组织等国际活动,必须在一个中国原则下处理。民进党当局炒作世卫组织涉台问题、企图“以疫谋独”,是不可能得逞的。

Mr Zhu stressed that WHO is an organization made up of sovereign nations. Taiwan is a part of China and not a sovereign nation. To join world activities, Taiwan must live up to the one-China principle.

Allen Yu

Allen Yu is an IP attorney in Silicon Valley and a blogger at hiddenharmonies.org. His articles on IP and technology law have appeared in the University of Southern California Law Review, Cardozo Law Review, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, and IDEA: the Intellectual Property Law Review. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a DEngr from UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science.