January 14 is a key date in China’s response to the virus. On that day, according to the leaked memo seen by AP and a partial government report
, provincial health officials were briefed by the head of China’s National Health Commission.
The memo seen by AP claims a “sober understanding of the situation” was given to top officials.
They were also warned that “clustered cases suggest that human-to-human transmission is possible,” AP reported, and that with the coming Chinese New Year travel rush “the risk of transmission and spread is high.”
“All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic,” the memo said, according to the AP report.
That day, Wuhan began instituting travel restrictions, and on January 15, officials in the city admitted
that “the possibility of human to human transmission cannot be excluded.”
However, despite the dire warnings allegedly made in the government briefing, the potential severity of the virus continued to be downplayed in public. On January 19, the Wuhan Health Commission said the outbreak was controllable and preventable, and not contagious.
The following day, the public was warned that human-to-human transmission was occurring
, and of the potential danger to medical personnel. Within three days, Wuhan was placed on lockdown.
By then, however, it was too late. The virus spread throughout China, infecting tens of thousands of people.
The six-day delay between when officials knew of human-to-human transmission
and when they made this public may have been key in driving the spread of the virus, according to researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. In a recent paper
, they estimated that enacting social distancing and travel restrictions a week earlier in China could have cut infections by up to two-thirds.
As of Thursday, China says some 83,000 people have been infected with the virus in China, and more than 3,300 have died. Beyond the country’s borders, the situation has become even worse, with more than two million cases worldwide.
While some governments — particularly Washington — have sought to blame China for the outbreak, as cases spread in their countries, many followed the same pattern of delay and downplaying of potential danger as their Chinese counterparts, even when they had all the necessary information to act and the potential severity of the virus was clear.
US President Donald Trump has touted a ban on travelers from China as evidence he acted early to contain the outbreak, but CNN has reported previously that he ignored key guidance from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), as well as within his own administration, and downplayed their concerns and injected controversial and unproven theories into the conversation.