China Is Suppressing Research on COVID Origins on Xi Jinping's Orders, Documents Show

More than a year after the first known person was infected with the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, the nation's government continues to keep much of its research about the virus in the dark. The publication of coronavirus data has been suppressed, new documents show, under orders from President Xi Jinping, the Associated Press reports.

The government is incentivizing scientists to research the virus' origins in southern China with grants of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the internal documents, which were obtained by the AP.

The region where the virus was first identified is of immense interest to the international scientific community, but much of that information has been withheld from the rest of the world because of China's control over the release of details.

Along with the massive funding, President Xi Jinping has directly ordered that all of the findings from those studies be monitored by the government and that publication of any research be approved by a new task force managed by Jinping's Cabinet.

"All publication work on epidemic prevention research and information related to COVID-19, including medication, vaccines, virus origins, virus transmission routes, testing reagents, etc. will be taken over by the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council's scientific research group...for coordinated deployment," one document says, according to the AP.

COVID Research China
A engineer takes samples of monkey kidney cells as he performs a test on an experimental vaccine for COVID-19 at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing on April 29. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

China's top-down control over release of information has affected containment of the virus since the beginning of the country's outbreak. In the early days, the government failed to warn of a likely pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with the World Health Organization (WHO) and obstructed testing.

Jinping did not warn the public about a looming health crisis until six days after top officials had already determined the gravity of the outbreak. Within that weeklong delay, more than 3,000 people were infected by the virus, the documents obtained by the AP show.

Then, as the country struggled to control its image on the world stage, China waited on releasing the virus's genome to the WHO during a critical time frame and continued to withhold data from government labs on patients and cases. Lack of testing availability in the city of Wuhan also made it difficult to slow the virus's spread in its epicenter.

The new documents also confirm that much of the country's response to the outbreak has come from Jinping, the AP said.

While the origins of the virus remain unclear, scientists first suspected it emerged from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where many human cases were first detected. However, as the outbreak grew, a paper by two Chinese scientists suggested, without concrete evidence, that the virus may have come from a laboratory near the market.

The paper, now taken down, sparked concerns about government control of coronavirus studies. Notices obtained by the AP showed presidential orders prohibiting staff of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention from sharing data to anyone outside of the agency.

Chinese authorities have instead promoted theories that the virus came from abroad, suggesting that outbreaks were caused by packages of contaminated frozen fish imported from Europe. Such ideas have been largely rejected from scientists around the world.

Coronavirus experts hope that Chinese government officials realize that international reputation needs to take a back seat to determining the origins of the virus, especially as new, more contagious strains continue to be identified.

"We're all part of this together," WHO member Peter Daszak told the AP. "And until we realize that, we're never going to get rid of this problem."

As of December 30, more than 82 million people have been infected worldwide and 1.7 million people have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Newsweek reached out to the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.