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The Rest of the Story: 'China's COVID Secrets'
February 2, 2021  | By David Hinckley

Almost from the start of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis, China has become an international virus football.

China's role and culpability, or lack of it, has been kicked every which way, often depending on the agenda of the kicker.

China's COVID Secrets, which airs Tuesday evening at 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS' Frontline series (check local listings), focuses on one specific area of that controversy: the response of the Chinese government in the early days of what would almost overnight mushroom into the pandemic we have all come to know and loathe.

Spoiler alert: China does not come off well.

Mainly, Frontline strongly suggests, China waited almost two months before admitting it was dealing with a transmissible new virus – two months during which Chinese travelers from the city where COVID-19 first appeared, very likely spread that virus to other cities and ultimately around the world.

Patient Zero, in the Frontline narrative, was a bat, probably in a "wet market" of Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub city of 11 million people.

Disputes remain over whether the virus simply was transmitted from that market or if it escaped from a lab where scientists were working – as scientists everywhere do – with this potentially dangerous new viral entity.

Frontline doesn't argue that point. It focuses instead on the fact that an elderly Wuhan man showed symptoms on Dec. 1, 2019, apparently from COVID-19, and that there were indications of a surge in respiratory infections starting around that time.

As of Jan. 20, 2020, more than seven weeks later, the Chinese government was officially reporting just 158 cases of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of workers were traveling from Wuhan back to their native provinces to celebrate the Chinese New Year with family.

At the same time, Frontline dives into the more technical issue of what Chinese doctors and scientists were sharing with the rest of the world medical community on this new virus.

The answer seems to be pretty much nothing. The Chinese researchers who had sequenced the DNA of the virus were told not to release it, which prevented medical experts in the rest of the world from linking it to their own data.

Had they been able to do so, the world might have identified and understood the danger earlier. Then they could have instituted stricter responses that could have limited, perhaps dramatically, COVID-19's impact.

What didn't help, Frontline says, was the response of the World Health Organization, a UN group that seemingly took at face value China's assurance that whatever this new virus might be, it carried a very low risk of human-to-human transmission.

Bad call.

To this day, Frontline reports, the Chinese government insists it was never less than open and transparent. But by the time China released the DNA sequencing and admitted there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, the virus had two months to begin its trip around the world.

The Frontline report suggests nothing like the dark early charge that China was trying to create a bioweapon.

On the contrary, it suggests China was surprised itself. Yet even as it was taking precautionary steps like shutting down the Wuhan wet market, it was assuring the world there's nothing to see here.

The figurative vaccine for avoiding or minimizing any worldwide biological crisis, several of Frontline's commentators stress, is international cooperation.

China, Frontline says, may still be working on that.

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