Wuhan Doctor Who First Raised Coronavirus Alarm Defends China's Secrecy, Insists Country's Response Was 'Very Timely'

The Chinese doctor credited with first identifying the COVID-19 coronavirus has defended the country's response to the outbreak in an interview with state television, amid international accusations that officials initially tried to conceal the crisis.

Zhang Jixian, a respiratory specialist at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine in the central city of Wuhan, spoke with the CGTN news channel—owned by the state-funded China Central Television organization—on Saturday, detailing her first experiences battling the novel coronavirus in December.

China has been criticized for its slow response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Local officials have been accused of failing to notify the World Health Organization (WHO) of the severity of the problem and silencing doctors who tried to warn the international community and the media.

Within months, the localized outbreak in Wuhan had become a pandemic. There have now been more than 2.4 million cases confirmed worldwide, with more than 165,000 deaths and 3.88 million recoveries, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But Zhang told CGTN that local authorities were quick to react to the troubling news she and her colleagues supplied having identified seven initial patients showing the same unusual symptoms.

The cases were reported to the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which Zhang said immediately dispatched a team to conduct an investigation. "They had a quick response," she explained.

"They came immediately in the afternoon to conduct an epidemiological investigation, collected blood samples from the patients and did throat swab tests, and they also checked the related etiology to see what the origin could be," Zhang told CGTN.

"Later, we reported on December 29, they came again to collect the patient's blood and collect samples through asking their medical history. I think it was a very timely response."

Zhang—who also worked through the 2003 SARS outbreak—said she had not expected COVID-19 to become a global crisis. "At first, I thought it might be an infectious disease, but I didn't expect it to be so contagious as it is now, or to spread as widely and as far," she told CGTN.

"Now, the pandemic is severe, with huge casualties. We really didn't expect the situation to become this bad. We only thought it might be infectious at the very beginning."

China has been criticized for being slow to notify the WHO and the international community of the threat posed by the virus. In early January, China was still claiming there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission—a characteristic that hugely increases the rate of infection—even though the WHO was privately warning leaders of the possibility.

President Xi Jinping is also sad to have delayed notifying the public of the true nature of the threat in January, sitting on his warning for six days as millions of Chinese traveled around the country and world in the lead up to the Lunar New Year.

But Zhang defended the speed of the response. "We were only beginning to understand the virus. So it wasn't appropriate to make too much information public when things were still not fully understood," she said.

"If it is me doing the research, how could I tell the public before I have come to a clear conclusion? We should always take a cautious, scientific attitude towards releasing such information to the public."

China has largely stemmed its national outbreak, though it remains on-guard against a second wave of infections. Wuhan—quarantined for a month—has lifted restrictions on residents and life is returning to some level of normality, though with additional checks on locals for symptoms and new cases.

But the Chinese government has been accused of hiding the true number of deaths in the city and failing to accurately report existing and new infections. Last week, local authorities revised the death toll by up 50 percent, claiming the increase was down to standard statistical analysis common among other nations.

A U.S. intelligence report sent to the White House last month suggested that China is hiding the number of dead in Wuhan. Both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have accused Beijing of a lack of transparency over the crisis, and sought to blame the pandemic on the regime's inaction.

Chinese state media and officials have rejected such accusations, framing U.S. criticism as an effort to side-step blame for their own bungling of the outbreak.

China, coronavirus, COVID-19, Wuhan, doctor, slow, response
This file photo shows a medical worker taking a swab sample from a man being tested for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 16, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty