By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
It has been nearly three months since the first cases of a new coronavirus pneumonia appeared in Wuhan, China, and it is now a global outbreak. Yet, despite nearly 90,000 infections worldwide (most of them in China), the world still does not have a clear picture of some basic information about this outbreak.
In recent weeks, a smattering of scientific papers and government statements have begun to sketch the outlines of the epidemic. The Chinese national health commission has reported that more than 1,700 medical workers in the country had contracted the virus as of Feb 14—that is alarming. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that some 80 percent of those infected have a mild illness—that is comforting. Last month, a joint World Health Organization-China mission announced that the death rate in Wuhan was 2 percent to 4 percent, but only 0.7 percent in the rest of China — a difference that makes little scientific sense.
In recent days, the WHO has complained that China has not been sharing data on infections in health care workers. Last month, the editors of the journal Nature called on researchers to “ensure that their work on this outbreak is shared rapidly and openly.”
Much more could be known and, in all likelihood, some scientists out there have good, if not definitive, answers. Yet, the lack of consistent, reliable and regularly updated information on the key measures of this outbreak is startling. In an era when we get flash-flood warnings on phones and weekly influenza statistics from every state, why is data on the new coronavirus so limited?
Science, politics and pride have all, in various ways, conspired to keep potentially vital, lifesaving knowledge under wraps. That is problematic at a time when more information is needed to be strategic about preparedness.
It began early in the course of the epidemic. On Dec. 30, a Chinese physician, Dr. Li Wenliang, posted on social media about a small number of people with unusual pneumonia. Though scientists in labs were already sequencing the virus, he was “warned and reprimanded” by local officials for rumor-mongering and the “illegal activity of publishing false information online.” (Li later died of the illness.)
There is a tradition in China (and likely much of the world) for local authorities not to report bad news to their superiors. During the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China from 1958 to 1962, local officials reported exaggerated harvest yields even as millions were starving. More recently, officials in Henan province denied there was an epidemic of AIDS spread through unsanitary blood collection practices.
Indeed, even when Beijing urges greater attention to scientific reality, compliance is mixed. On Feb. 13, the Communist Party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei provinces lost their jobs over their botched initial handling of the crisis. Damage had been done. As the virus was taking hold, doctors were not wearing proper protective equipment. Sick people, thinking they had just a cold, did not seek medical attention. Travelers continued to board cruise ships, spreading a new pathogen.
“Early on, management was less than optimal in Hubei and they’re paying for that now,” said Dr. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who has been working in China and advising the Chinese government since the SARS outbreak.
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. http://www.kaiserhealthnews.com