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Did China downplay the outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus? Here’s what we know

When China first announced the outbreak of a viral pneumonia in December, authorities were clear on several things: there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, most cases involved the elderly and most patients had been exposed to a food market in the city of Wuhan.

“Most of the unexplained viral pneumonia cases in Wuhan this time have a history of exposure to the South China seafood market,” the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said in a statement.
“No clear evidence of human-to-human transmission has been found.”

But a new study published by Chinese researchers in the Lancet on Jan. 24 appears to contradict some of those assertions and offers a different version of the early days of the outbreak.

Speaking with patients, analyzing chest X-rays and reviewing medical records, researchers found that of the first 41 confirmed cases of the virus, nearly half were 49 years old or younger and roughly a third had not been exposed to the Huanan market identified, suggesting that the virus may have been transferred from person to person in early December.

“The number of deaths is rising quickly,” the researchers wrote. “We are concerned that 2019-nCoV could have acquired the ability for efficient human transmission.”

Roughly 15 per cent of those first 41 people died, according to the study, and the first patients were admitted to hospital in early December, more than a month before Chinese authorities closed the wild animal market and quarantined Wuhan and other neighbouring cities in Hubei province.

Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a global health professor at York University, said the study raises questions about whether some of the initial concerns coming out of China about the virus were “downplayed.”

READ MORE: Health officials urge Canadians to get coronavirus information from credible sources

“The first 41 cases does look very different than what China was reporting at the time,” Hoffman told Global News. “In any public health response, one of the most important things is the co-operation of the public.

Experts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also publicly criticized what they called a lack of data from China about the Wuhan coronavirus, which was hindering international efforts to stem the outbreak.

“This is Epi 101,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the U.S. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “I don’t want to denigrate our Chinese colleagues, but when information is not presented clearly, you have to wonder.”

READ MORE: How to protect yourself from coronavirus

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