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The last time China was hit by a deadly illness like the Wuhan virus, it covered it up and 774 people died. There are fears it could happen again.

Rosie Perper , Business Insider US
 Jan 21, 2020, 12:01 PM
A security guard wears a mask at Amoy Gardens housing estate in Kowloon bay, Hong Kong where a block has been quarantined to protect against a deadly pneumonia virus 01 April 2003.
PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images
  • The mysterious Wuhan virus has swept through parts of Asia, infection more than 200 people since the virus was first detected in December.
  • 217 people have been infected in China alone, according to Reuters, about triple the number of cases previously disclosed by the Chinese government.
  • Still, some experts suggest the actual number of people by the virus may be anywhere between 996 and 2,298.
  • The quick-spreading virus has fueled concerns that the Chinese government may attempt to cover-up the severity of the disease as it did in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, which resulted in 774 deaths across at least 30 countries.
  • For more stories go to

A mysterious new virus is sweeping through parts of Asia, infecting more than 200 people since the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China in December.

The new illness is believed to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, a densely populated central Chinese city home to around 11 million people. It has been dubbed the Wuhan virus, or the 2019-nCoV, and is considered to a coronavirus, which causes cold-like symptoms and is considered "zoonotic" and can be transmitted between animals and humans.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.

Microscopic view of a coronovirus, whose name comes from the crown shape surrounding the virus.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

The virus is considered to be a "novel coronavirus" because it is a new strain that has not previously been identified in humans. There are currently no vaccinations for the disease, although WHO has published interim guidelines for all countries on how they can prepare for this virus, including monitoring sick people, treating and quarantining patients, and communicating with the public about the spread of infection.

As of Tuesday, at least four people in Wuhan have died from the virus, according to local authorities. The virus has also spread to other Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shenzhen, as well as South Korea, Thailand, and Japan. Several as-of-yet unconfirmed cases have also been reported in the UK and Australia.

By late Monday, 218 people have been infected in China, according to Reuters. Of that number, 198 people have been infected in Wuhan alone, which is triple the number of cases disclosed the previous day by Chinese authorities. On Tuesday, Wuhan health authorities said that dozens of patients remain in hospital with the virus, some critically ill and all under quarantine.

But China's handling of 2003's SARS epidemic has sparked concerns among observers of another possible global pandemic and state-sanctioned cover-up.

Fears of another SARS outbreak

Health workers wear full protective clothing during the cleaning up operation at Amoy Gardens where over 200 residents have been infected with the SARS (Severe Acute Respitory Syndrome) virus April 4, 2003 in Hong Kong.
Christian Keenan/Getty Images

Fears of another global epidemic stem from China's handling of the deadly outbreak of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in the early 2000s.

Experts have noted that there are similarities between the Wuhan virus and the SARS Virus, which reached epidemic proportions between November 2002 and July 2003. The epidemic caused 8,098 cases of the disease and resulted in 774 deaths across at least 30 countries before it was declared contained.

The outbreak of the illness was traced to China's Guangdong Province and was genetically traced to have spread through bats.

During the initial stages of the outbreak, the Chinese government concealed information from the public, limiting mitigation efforts and exacerbating the spread of disease. The country also had no government agencies in place at the time to deal with a public health emergency.

The government did not inform the World Health Organisation of the outbreak until February 2003, allowing the disease to flourish.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, doctors in Beijing were ordered by authorities to hide SARS patients from WHO officials during inspections.

The tight-lipped response from the Chinese government on the disease was both a political and an economic move, meant to reduce public panic and keep the status quo within the country. Taiwanese legislators even accused China of unleashing the virus as part of a biological warfare campaign, though no conclusive evidence has been found, according to Reuters.

A Chinese doctor named Jiang Yanyong eventually exposed China's attempted cover-up of the disease, earning him a human rights award, that he was barred from traveling to collect in the US. He was also reportedly taken into Chinese military custody before being released in 2014.

China finally apologised in 2003 for its slow reporting of the outbreak and promised to establish a national medical emergency mechanism.

Chinese authorities have jumped in to control the spread of information on the Wuhan virus

Medical staff members carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital, where patients infected by a mysterious SARS-like virus are being treated, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on January 18, 2020.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, China's National Health Commission said in its first public statement on the outbreak that an outbreak of the disease is "still preventable and controllable."

On Monday, the health body was forced to admit that the disease was able to spread from person-to-person, and cases of infection were reported by people who never stepped foot in Wuhan.

"Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission," Zhong Nanshan, a scientist at the National Health Commission, said in an interview on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. He added that the spread of the deadly infection was "climbing" though he said the "death rate at the moment is not so representative."

Chinese leaders have also spoken out on the disease, promising to share pertinent information with the public quickly.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday pledged that the government would "adhere to openness and transparency" and would "release authoritative information" on the virus "in a unified manner."

Chinese President Xi Jinping also gave a statement on the health crisis, saying it was necessary to "release information on the epidemic in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation."

Despite this, observers are still skeptical about China's commitment to speaking the truth as China has also been known to distort data and enforce strict censorship in reference to information it shares with the public.

Reuters' China correspondent Cate Cadell tweeted that several people she had spoken to reported being tracked by Chinese authorities for posting information about sick relatives or friends on social media, or for speaking to members of the press.

According to Reuters, users of the microblogging platform Weibo have complained about a lack of access to clear guidance from the government on preventing the spread of disease.

Scientists at the Imperial College London working in collaboration with WHO suggest the actual number of people infected by the virus may be anywhere between 996 and 2,298, which are figures significantly higher than that released by the Chinese government so far.

There are also concerns that China is downplaying the severity of the virus ahead of China's Lunar New Year holiday, often described as the "largest human migration in the world," which could accelerate the crisis rapidly as millions prepare to travel to the country.

China's mistakes will be tested as it faces a new outbreak

The world is closely watching the Chinese government as it responds to the spread of its newest coronavirus in the wake of its SARS crisis.

Experts have noted that China has learned much from the SARS crisis, including the need for coordinated response.

But news about the virus has spread across social media, raising pressure on the Chinese government to increase transparency.

On Sunday, journalist David Paulk posted a video of medics in hazmat suits scanning dozens of plane passengers for the symptoms of the virus, stoking fears of a global epidemic.

Three US airports have also begun screening passengers for the disease, as have airports in Singapore and Hong Kong, according to the BBC.

"The government seems to have learned that in an era of the Internet and cell phones, a complete information blackout is not only impossible but also counterproductive," Yanzhong Huang, who published a report on the SARS epidemic and its aftermath in China, wrote in 2004.

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