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FRONTLINE: China's Covid Secrets

In January 2020, a worker in a protective suit is seen at the Huanan Seafood Market, thought to have been the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.
Courtesy of Darley Shen/REUTERS
In January 2020, a worker in a protective suit is seen at the Huanan Seafood Market, thought to have been the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Encore Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV / On Demand

In the months since its emergence in Wuhan, China back in December of 2019, COVID-19 has killed more than two million people worldwide, over 400,000 of them in the United States. Now, with leaked documents, secret recordings and firsthand accounts, a 90-minute FRONTLINE documentary reveals the gulf between what Chinese scientists and officials knew and what they told the world.

“I believe that the true history needs to be remembered,” the first health worker from Wuhan Central Hospital to talk to international journalists about what was happening in the early days of the outbreak says in “China’s COVID Secrets.” “We need to learn the lessons so that this doesn’t happen again.”

The Chinese government says that it has acted “in a timely manner” and with “openness, transparency and responsibility” in the fight against COVID-19. Over the past year, director Jane McMullen ("Fire in Paradise," "North Korea’s Deadly Dictator") has been interviewing doctors, scientists, experts and public health officials involved in the response — and in "China’s COVID Secrets," their accounts paint a different picture.

In the 54 days between the first known person becoming symptomatic with the virus and the Jan. 23 lockdown of Wuhan, the film finds, local doctors who tried to sound the alarm were punished and silenced. Local, provincial and national authorities downplayed the severity of the virus and kept international health officials and scientists in the dark. In particular, the documentary reports, the Chinese government’s weeks-long insistence that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus lost the rest of the world valuable time.

‘Out of Control’: Wuhan Health Worker Speaks Out | "China's COVID Secrets" | FRONTLINE

“By the time we knew it was transmissible human-to-human, the cat was out of the bag. That was the shot we had, and we lost it,” says Professor Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

Professor W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, says the head of China’s CDC told him personally that the virus was not highly transmissible as the end of 2019 approached: “He’d identified the virus, it was a new coronavirus and it was not highly transmissible,” Lipkin says, publicly recounting the details of their conversation for the first time. “Well, this didn’t really resonate with me because I’d heard that many, many people had been infected … I don’t think he was duplicitous; I think he was just wrong.”

With leaked recordings obtained by the Associated Press and shared with FRONTLINE and the BBC, "China’s COVID Secrets" also goes inside the WHO’s early handling of the outbreak. The recordings reveal that as WHO officials praised China publicly, they privately were expressing concern about the government’s lack of transparency and worried that the WHO would be accused of failing to warn the world.

“Those concerns are not something they ever aired publicly,” AP reporter Dake Kang says in the film. “Instead, they basically deferred to China.”

W.H.O. Praised China's Early COVID Response in Public. In Private, They Had Concerns

The film team asked Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, why the agency didn’t take a tougher public line with China. She cited the use of diplomacy:

“We have public discussion about the information that we have,” she said. “We also have very direct conversations with countries privately … we would go back and we would ask for more information and we would receive information every day. Was it enough every single day? No, but I could say that for every country that we dealt with, in every outbreak that we have dealt with.”

“China’s COVID Secrets” identifies numerous missed opportunities at the local and national level to suppress the outbreak, and reveals lessons for the world as the coronavirus pandemic continues and the possibility of the next infectious disease pandemic looms.


“What we need is early warning and work together, share information, transparency,” says Prof. Wang Linfa, a bat virologist at Duke-Nus Medical School in Singapore. “I mean, COVID-19 is not going to be the last one, right? Everybody knows that.”

Related Articles:

"A Timeline of China’s Response in the First Days of COVID-19" by Priyanka Boghani

"In Public, the World Health Organization Praised China’s Early COVID Response. In Private, They Had Concerns" by Patrice Taddonio

"Chinese Spam Network Aims to Discredit U.S. COVID Vaccine and Response, Report Finds" by Dan Glaun

Watch On Your Schedule:

The film is available on demand on PBS, at pbs.org/frontline, on YouTube and the PBS Video App.


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Credits:

A BBC Current Affairs production for GBH/FRONTLINE and BBC. The producer and director is Jane McMullen. The senior producer is Dan Edge. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.