You already knew that the Chinese government was spectacularly unhelpful and secretive in the pivotal early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. You probably suspected that any book about the pandemic written by former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb was going to be insightful and illuminating.
But you probably didn’t know how Gottlieb could, in a matter of paragraphs, perfectly illustrate the culpability of the Chinese government in how COVID-19 went from a virus spreading around Wuhan to a global plague that has killed, so far, more than 4.7 million people. Page 48 of Gottlieb’s new book, Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic:
[On] January 1, CDC Director Robert Redfield emailed his Chinese counterpart, Dr. George Fu Gao, a virologist and immunologist who had served as director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention since 2017. After receiving no response, later that day Redfield called Gao to press for more information. By January 3, the two had talked multiple times about the outbreak. The following day, on January 4, Redfield sent Gao another e-mail, again entreating for more information on the situation in Wuhan and requesting that the U.S. CDC staff be given access to the hot zone.
“I would like to offer CDC technical experts in laboratory and epidemiology of respiratory infectious diseases to assist you and China CDC in identification of this unknown and possibly novel pathogen,” Redfield wrote. Gao was emphatic that there was no person-to-person transmission and no evidence of spread within hospitals. Gao’s working theory was that the virus had been spread by contact with an animal, still unidentified, at the Huanan market. All the early cases seemed to be tied to that market. But Gao had sent Redfield a list of the first twenty-seven cases that the Chinese CDC had identified, and Redfield noticed that among them were three clusters where multiple family members were affected – a husband and wife, or a child and a parent. It seemed implausible that to Redfield that multiple members of three different families had all contracted the virus from one zoonotic exposure. Redfield told Gao he was extremely worried this was evidence of human-to-human transmission, urging Gao to look aggressively through local medical admissions for people with matching respiratory symptoms who didn’t identify the food market as a common point of contact.
Two days later, [January 6] Redfield sent another note, this time attaching a formal letter offering support of the U.S. CDC. Gao called Redfield back and cried during the phone call, telling Redfield that they might be too late to stop a larger epidemic. Gao had broadened his search for cases, and based on Redfield’s suggestion, expanded the “case definition” he was using to include people with matching respiratory symptoms but who didn’t necessarily report having any contact with the food market suspected as a source for the outbreak. Now, Gao was finding many more cases that seemed to be caused by the same pathogen. The infection appeared widespread.
Redfield believed Gao and other health authorities in Beijing were unaware of the outbreak until late December. Prior to that time, U.S. officials believe the information was being held by provincial officials, and perhaps the Chinese military, but not shared with central health officials in Beijing. If the U.S. had been able to get its own CDC staff on the ground when they made their first request, Redfield believes the U.S. would have uncovered the evidence of asymptomatic spread. That information could have changed the structure of the American response.
It wasn’t just Gao who was giving Redfield and U.S. health officials the cold shoulder. As the scope of the outbreak grew, information sharing contracted. Across different levels of the U.S. and Chinese CDCs, where there had previously been regular contact among lower-level officials, the Chinese CDC went dark on their U.S. counterparts. And it wasn’t just the U.S. CDC that was having problems getting access to information in China. Gao was having his own problems inside his own country. His investigators had been rebuffed by local authorities in Wuhan. “They didn’t show him all the cases,’ said Dr. Ray Yip, the U.S. CDC’s former China liaison, of the Wuhan authorities. “They had a couple of cases of hospital workers infected by then, and that’s obviously human-to-human, how else did they get it?” Yip said.
The question of whether this virus emerged from a lab leak is supremely important, but it has obscured the equally scandalous and horrific facts that are known and indisputable. Chinese authorities in Wuhan and later in Beijing knew they were dealing with a dangerous and contagious virus, and instead of warning the world, chose to allow contagious carriers to travel around the world. The Chinese government did not admit the virus was contagious until January 21. By then, it was far too late; cases had been reported in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, and the virus was spreading, undetected, all around the world.
This raises the uncomfortable question of whether something that was not designed as a bioweapon can become the functional equivalent of a bioweapon, when it is knowingly spread to other countries.
David Asher is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, and in 2020, he served in the State Department advising and supporting investigations into nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons proliferation. At State Department, he spearheaded a task force for the Office of the Secretary of State, looking at the origins of COVID-19 and the role of the Chinese Communist government.
At a recent Hudson Institute event, Asher noted, “almost any major lab in the world could create a bioweapon, unfortunately. It really comes down to if something was released in a form of a potential pandemic pathogen, whether it was covered up or not. They certainly in China weaponized this virus, however it arrived on the face of the earth, by covering up, not just its origin, but the fact that it was spreading and could spread asymptomatically human to human, and they did it for months.”