The Chinese government has ordered new restrictions on studies regarding the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, in a further sign Beijing is hiding details behind the cause of the global pandemic.
An internal government directive posted on the websites of several Chinese universities and research institutes states that all research papers on the virus origin must now be “strictly managed” and carefully reviewed by central government officials before publication.
Separately, a report by the Washington-based American Enterprise, Institute estimates that nearly 3 million people in China were infected by the virus, with deaths estimated at more than 136,000 deaths — far more than the official totals released by Beijing.
The new restrictions on publishing followed the recent disclosure of extensive Chinese research on bat coronaviruses at facilities close to a wild animal market in Wuhan that has been identified by Beijing authorities as the center of the outbreak. The virus behind the devastating pandemic has been identified as a bat coronavirus that was passed on to humans, either directly or through an animal host.
China’s government has called for scientists to study the origin but has not disclosed whether such studies are underway. Government spokesmen in recent days have frequently have called for greater international cooperation in responding to the pandemic.
However, public health experts say China covered up early details of the outbreak in December and then refused repeated requests from American and international experts to investigate the virus first-hand in China during the early stages.
After initially asserting the virus originated in a wild animal market in Wuhan, the Chinese government then launched a disinformation campaign claiming the virus may have come from outside the country, and spread by U.S. Army troops at a military sporting games in Wuhan in October.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly called out the Chinese government for failing to provide data on the virus needed by American experts searching for vaccines and treatments. He called the lack of transparency on data-sharing a continuing problem.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said Saturday that China was responsible for spreading false information early in the outbreak.
“We did not get correct information, and the incorrect information was propagated right from the beginning,” Dr. Fauci told Fox News.
China initially said the virus was transmitted solely from animals to humans.
“Now, we know retrospectively that there was ongoing transmission from human to human in China, probably at least a few weeks before then,” he said.
A Chinese researcher told CNN, which first reported the new restrictions, that the new controls on publication were a worrisome sign. As recently as February, no similar controls were placed on research related to the virus.
“I think it is a coordinated effort from [the] Chinese government to control [the] narrative, and paint it as if the outbreak did not originate in China,” the researcher said. “And I don’t think they will really tolerate any objective study to investigate the origination of this disease.”
The directive by the Ministry of Education stated that “academic papers tracing the origin of the virus must be strictly and tightly managed.”
Several layers of official approvals are now required for papers prior to publication beginning with academic committees at universities. A further step required approval from the Education Ministry science and technology department which then forwards papers to the State Council, the government entity under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Separate notices were sent to research institutes and hospitals stating that pre-publication review is required by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The directive was issued following a meeting March 25 of the State Council task force on the coronavirus.
Among the places where the notice was posted on Friday was Fudan University in Shanghai. The notice was later taken down and an official told CNN the directive was not meant to be public. The notice also appeared on the China University of Geoscience in Wuhan, and the Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the controls on publication of Chinese coronavirus research should not be a surprise.
“This is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy to deny their culpability for the creation and spread of the disease,” Capt. Fanell said. “General Secretary Xi understands the very survival of the CCP rests upon being able to control the ‘truth’ of how the virus began and how it was spread.”
Capt. Fanell said the party is seeking to control the strategic narrative regarding the origin and spread of the disease in scientific and academic journalist it controls.
Once that is accomplished, the CCP “will then turn their information warfare strategy to proclaim the PRC’s form of global governance is the most successful on the planet, one that saves lives, while the U.S.’s chaos of democracy, with competing political interests, actually kills more people.”
“This is a lie, but it is the ‘big lie’ that Xi is gambling will take hold in the capitals and news rooms around the world,” he said.
The AEI report questioning China’s official statistics bolsters the reported classified assessment of U.S. intelligence analysts that China has intentionally understated the number of people who were infected as well as those who died.
The official Chinese government tally of infections in China is about 83,000, with 3,300 deaths. By contrast, the U.S., which reported its first domestic COVID-19 case two months after China in late January, now has more than 577,000 confirmed infections.
The U.S. and five European allies all now report they have more confirmed cases than China.
Derek Scissors, author of the AEI, estimates that, based on outbreak figures in other countries, that the actual number of those infected in China is more than 2.9 million with at least 136,000 dead.
The projections are based on China’s large population, the rapid spread of the virus in other countries, and travel by as many 4 million people in January who left Wuhan, many carrying the virus.
Calls for clarity
Mr. Pompeo said last week that China has an obligation to provide information on the virus.
“This is not the time for retribution, but it is still the time for clarity and transparency,” he said. “We’re still working on this problem set. There’s still data that these good people need so that they can perform their analysis of how to both develop therapeutics and a vaccine and to understand where this virus is.”
“Every country has an obligation to share that information accurately, timely, completely, transparently, and thoroughly, just as quickly as they can gather it. We’ll leave for another time to evaluate how everyone did in that,” he said.
Among the important research related to the current pandemic has been the work of Shi Zhengli, who conducted extensive research on bat viruses at the Wuhan Institution of Virology, specifically the high-security National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan that handles deadly viruses.
Ms. Shi wrote in a 2015 paper published in the journal Nature that scientists had developed bat virus capable of infecting humans as part of their research.
“The 2019 novel coronavirus is a punishment by nature to humans’ unsanitary lifestyle,” Ms. Shi stated on WeChat last month. “I promise with my life that the virus has nothing to do with the lab.”
One of the earliest scientific papers on the new virus was published by a group of 29 Chinese scientists Jan. 27 in the British medical journal The Lancet. The report analyzed the first 41 cases of the virus and stated that the first person to contract the disease began showing symptoms at a Wuhan hospital on Dec. 1.
The first victim also had no contact with the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market that authorities say was where the virus outbreak originated.
Since the paper was published, several additional research papers have been published, in the Lancet and on websites that post pre-reviewed copies of scientific studies.
In February, two Chinese researchers published a paper that warned that “somebody was entangled with the evolution of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus.”
“In addition to the origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan,” the researchers Xiao Botao and Xiao Leo stated.