April 04, 2003
Chinese Government Faulted For Making SARS Outbreak Worse

The Washington Post has a good report laying out the events inside the Chinese government as it covered up the outbreak of SARS.

The outbreak of the illness is a revealing case study in how China's authoritarian government, which seeks to maintain a monopoly on power and control information, concealed vital data about a life-threatening disease from the Chinese people, according to doctors, health officials and journalists familiar with the events.

China is the place where the holding back of information on epidemic outbreaks promises to be most threatening to the world as a whole. Because of the millions of people (tens of millions? hundreds of millions?) in Southern China who live in close proximity with pigs, ducks, and other fowl China is like a big experiment for the mixing of DNA across different virus strains that normally infect different species. In the case of SARS it is likely that a human coronavirus coinfected a cell (probably in a human) at the same time a coronavirus from another species did as well. Genes were exchanged and the result was a coronavirus that is more lethal to humans. This also happens with influenza viruses. The most lethal influenza viruses are either viruses that jumped over from other species or which exchanged DNA with viruses from other species.

Because China has such ideal conditions for gene swapping between virus strains from different species it is more likely than any place on Earth to be the source of the next killer virus whose lethality would rank up there with the 1918-1919 Influenza pandemic that killed 20 to 40 million people. The authoritarian impulses of the Chinese authorities to control and hush up bad news, as they have done with the SARS pathogen, put the rest of the world at much greater risk to every new disease that first shows up in China. This impulse on the part of the Chinese government deserves to be widely and loudly criticised. The rest of the world needs to make it clear to China that this kind of "hush it up" reaction to disease outbreaks will not be tolerated because it creates an unacceptable risk to the health of all of humanity.

While the Chinese government prevented Chinese newspapers from reporting on SARS Dan Gillmor reports that text messaging using mobile phones helped spread the knowledge that SARS was a threat.

I found the Dan Gillmor link in a SARS link collection by Ian Mckenzie.

Update: Health care workers in Beijing are reporting 50 cases of SARS in spite of the fact that the last report from China to the WHO reported only 12 in Beijing. China is still being slow about admitting the extent of its SARS cases.

The additional cases have not been reported to the World Health Organization, even though Chinese health officials promised to begin daily reporting of such statistics this week.

Update II: The Globe and Mail has an excellent story on how the Chinese government tried to keep secret the spread of SARS.

But information was not shared with other health departments in this province of 80 million people. Instead, the Heyuan paper printed this statement on Jan. 3 from the local health bureau: "No epidemic disease is being spread in Heyuan. . . . Symptoms like cough and fever appear due to relatively colder weather." That was apparently the first report on SARS in the Chinese media.

Update III: In a move that is extremely rare for China the director of the Chinese CDC apologized for the Chinese government's handing of SARS.

"Today, we apologize to everyone," said Li Liming, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control. "Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination," he said. "We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."

While this apology has been broadcast in Hong Kong it is not clear whether people in mainland China heard it.

Li's statement was not immediately reported by Chinese media. It was not known whether his remarks were authorized by senior officials or whether Li, highly regarded in his field, had taken the unusual step of articulating the widespread view on his own. Other officials who have released unauthorized material about SARS have lost their jobs

In an encouraging sign that the Chinese leaders have perhaps learned that they can't go keeping major disease outbreaks secret the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister made noises about being a lot more open the next time around.

Deputy Prime Minister Wu Yi called for "the immediate establishment of a national medical emergency mechanism, with emphasis placed on a public health information and an early warning reporting mechanism".

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 April 04 11:57 AM  Dangers Natural Bio

razib said at April 4, 2003 1:45 PM:

historically many plagues have come out of "asia," almost certainly if we had more information, we would find that china was the source....

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