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).
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.