China’s first virus doctor speaks out
The Chinese doctor who reportedly discovered coronavirus in Wuhan has recalled her first encounter with the mysterious disease which presented in an ordinary elderly couple.
Dr Zhang Jixian, a respiratory and critical care doctor at the Hubei Provincial Hospital in Wuhan, has been hailed in China as the first person to report the virus to authorities in December.
Her detailed account of the earliest days of the outbreak, published by China's state-run Xinhua news agency, comes as the country faces mounting accusations of a cover-up and was forced to revise the number of dead in Wuhan up by 50 per cent.
Speaking through a bright blue surgical face mask, Dr Zhang told Xinhua the first two coronavirus patients had been an elderly husband and wife.
"On December 26, the first patient we saw was an elderly lady who had fever, cough and trouble breathing," she said.
"Her husband and son came along with her. Her husband came to see a doctor for fatigue. He didn't have a fever … We wondered whether the son was sick as well. Once we did the test, sure enough, the son had the lung problem too."
Dr Zhang said the family's symptoms "looked like flu or common pneumonia" but their CT scans showed significant damage to their lungs.
"We've had patients with ground-glass opacities in their lungs caused by virus infection. But his (the son's) were a lot more and larger than what we had seen before," she said.
When another patient presented with the same symptoms on December 27, Dr Zhang said she filed a report to the hospital that warned she'd likely "discovered a viral disease, probably infectious".
According to the Xinhua report, Dr Zhang had worked during the 2003 SARS epidemic and was "sensitive to signs of an epidemic".
She claimed other patients began to arrive with similar cases leading to an expert discussion with 10 people after which they reported the case.
"We said we suspected something wrong, but we didn't know what it was," she said.
An investigation into the mysterious disease was launched the next day, and on December 30, all medical institutions in Wuhan were alerted to "an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown cause in the city", Xinhua reported.
On December 31, an expert team from China's National Health Commission (NHC) was dispatched to Wuhan and all residents were told to wear face masks and avoid crowded areas, it said. By then, 27 cases of the virus had been confirmed across the city.
CHINA ACCUSED OF COVER-UP
The report comes as China is under increasing pressure to explain the source of the virus from US and other world leaders.
Dr Zhang's account aligns with the timeline given by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says it was alerted to the outbreak on December 31.
It also matches with an account given by doctor Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who tried to raise the alarm about the coronavirus, who told colleagues in an online chat group on December 30 that patients were being "quarantined in the emergency department".
But since the very beginning of the pandemic, China has been accused of fudging its numbers and attempting to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak including the fact that huma-to-human transmission was occurring in the city.
Many experts questioned whether the country was being completely transparent, and were concerned when Dr Li was arrested by police and several other doctors accused of "spreading rumours".
Dr Li eventually died of the disease and was hailed as a hero after his death.
International concern about reporting from within China was piqued again on Friday when authorities in Wuhan abruptly raised the city's death toll by 50 per cent - or 1,290 deaths - to a new total of 3,869. That also pushed China's nationwide death toll up sharply to 4,632.
Wuhan authorities cited several reasons for the missed cases, including that the city's medical staff were overwhelmed in the early days as infections climbed, leading to "late reporting, omissions or misreporting".
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said such miscounting was to be expected in the initial stages of a major disease outbreak an denied a cover-up.
"I think they are all smearing China and cooking up stories about China," he said. "There has never been any concealment, and we'll never allow any concealment."
But world leaders from the US, Britain and France have their doubts.
US President Donald Trump, who has been one of China's biggest critics, has recently been talking up a theory that the global pandemic was started by a pathogen that escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
"The mere fact that we don't know the answers - that China hasn't shared the answers - I think is very, very telling," his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said.
But Mr Zhao says the US administration is only trying to shift the focus away from its own failings.
"Anyone discerning can tell at a glance that the purpose of the US is simply to confuse the public, divert attention, and shirk responsibility," he told reporters on Friday.
"We have said many times that tracing of the virus' origin is a serious scientific issue and requires scientific and professional assessment."
Scientists believe the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.
The lab pointed to by Mr Trump - the Wuhan Institute of Virology - specialises in research on animal-to-human transmission of such viruses. But there is no evidence to backup the theory that the virus came from the lab.
More than two million people have now been infected with COVID-19 across the world and 145,000 people have died.
Originally published as China's first virus doctor speaks out