The director of China’s National Center for Disease Control and Prevention says he would give himself full marks for the way he and his team performed at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis in Wuhan, the initial epicenter and suspected origin of the global pandemic.
Gao Fu, also known as George Gao, chief of China’s CDC, told state media, “I never flunked the [Covid] test, I would give myself a score of 100.”
Gao, an Oxford and Harvard-trained virologist and chief of the Chinese CDC since 2017, has been giving media interviews since last month, ahead of this week’s arrival of a World Health Organization team of experts tasked with investigating the pandemic’s origins.
He is also on deck in the center’s main command room in Beijing as the nation scrambles to contain a new rash of infections sweeping some northern provinces near Beijing.
In arguably his most candid interview, with the Beijing-based Caijing Magazine in late December, Gao fended off blame when answering questions about the widespread wrath among some Chinese over the CDC’s perceived initial coverup and culpability.
He revealed that, in the first few days of 2020, experts with the National CDC had “thought of” human-to-human infection risks, having gauged the viral situation in Wuhan. Still, Li Gang, head of Wuhan’s municipal CDC, said at a January 6 press briefing that there was “no obvious evidence about inter-human transmission.”
Gao, a year on, added a new spin to what Li meant. There was such transmission but the evidence was “weak and inadequate.”
“In early January of 2020 we already had such a judgement [about human-to-human spread], there is no question about that. But we were still looking for more convincing evidence.
“There was also a process to follow before we could decide if we must let the public know. We hope the public could make allowances for the process we must go through,” said Gao, a member of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Chinese CDC did not openly warn that the virus could spread quickly by human-to-human transmission until January 20, more than a month after it first struck down people in Wuhan.
Gao added that the “small number of initial cases” in Wuhan lulled CDC experts into a false sense of security and so they ruled out risks of a pandemic because there was “no evidence” supporting heightening alarm levels.
“At first the virus appeared to be not that virulent or infectious, as back then, we did not know there would have been so many patients exhibiting few or no symptoms associated with the virus.
“Instead, we reckoned that, based on what we knew of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, the new pathogen may not spread quickly among people.”
“Every decision we made at the CDC was based on scientific evidence and practicality, that we must take into account if people in the streets will accept our calls and reminders.
“If I told them early on, like in early January 2020 that the virus was ‘dangerous and crazy,’ not too many of them would heed the warning and they may even blame us for our inability to bring it under control,” Gao said.
Gao also told Xinhua in April that no other country would have fared better than China and that the United States may emerge as the worst-hit country judging by several key metrics.
“China’s feat [in flattening the arc of infection] after Wuhan and the city’s ability to conjure victories from a dire contagion are indisputable and they also prove that the National CDC has done things right,” he said.
Gao is likely to meet face-to-face with the WHO’s expert panel, members of which flew into Wuhan on Thursday and are now in mandatory quarantine.
The timing of Gao’s recent interviews has been interpreted as a bid to cement a discourse that the Chinese CDC, as well as the nation’s entire public health apparatus, did not botch their initial response to the fast-evolving viral spread in Wuhan a year ago.
While letting in the WHO mission to trace Covid-19’s possible origin, Beijing is also purveying the narrative that the virus could have cropped up elsewhere, as its new strains and some preliminary studies suggest it could have “multiple sources and versions.”
Gao told Caijing that his year of epidemiological research focusing on Wuhan had failed to find an intermediate host of the virus.
“What we already know about different coronaviruses is that they normally need a new host, different from a source animal, for them to jump on to humans, but so far we have not found a host for Covid.
“Meanwhile we are seeing that many new flareups in China are ignited by Covid from abroad, like viable virus found on the packaging of imported chilled food. Thus we wonder if the first outbreaks in Wuhan could have anything to do with cold chain contamination. But I must stress that we don’t have evidence for that either.”
He said that possibility had already been borne out by a recent string of related incidents across the nation. China has long stepped up checks of imported frozen products and urged people to exercise caution when buying imported food.
He also admitted that the first time he heard of the “mysterious pneumonia” in Wuhan caused by the Covid-19 pathogen was on December 30, 2020, not via the CDC’s nationwide monitoring and reporting network, but rather via social media posts.
“It was at 11 pm that night when I first saw posts about the new disease appearing in Wuhan. I discussed it with my deputies till 3 am the next morning and the CDC sent a team to the city the next day and I got up early to arrange emergency virus isolation and sequencing programs,” Gao said.
Gao’s some say revisionist version of events have exposed him to jabs from Chinese netizens who have lambasted what they saw as the CDC’s “administrative inadequacies” in handling Wuhan’s initial outbreak.
Rumors were rife last summer that CDC heads would roll and Gao would soon be sacked to face disciplinary actions over their response. In a separate interview back then, Gao lamented that every “nefarious intention” had been attributed to every action he had taken at the CDC.
Gao also told state broadcaster China Central Television that throughout his 40-year career as a virologist, he had never seen anything like Covid-19.
“This virus has upturned almost all theories in virology, and we still have no clue about how it propped up and began to spread among humans,” he said. “If we can’t identify an intermediate host animal, then another possibility can be that it has long been dormant in our bodies and an unknown event, either in Wuhan or elsewhere, awakened it.”