The Chinese government may have been behind the leak that showed it botched its initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak and downplayed its numbers to the world, leading analysts have said.
It comes as China’s state media appears to be ramping up a campaign to question the origins of the coronavirus before the World Health Organisation investigation arrives in the country.
A trove of 177 pages of internal documents leaked to CNN reveals health officials in Hubei province, where the virus first broke out, were hamstrung by underfunding that resulted in delayed testing and critical gaps in staffing.
The documents also reveal how authorities took an average of 23.2 days to diagnose cases in the first months of the outbreak and that initially there was chronic underreporting of case numbers.
On February 10, for instance, there were 5918 verified cases but the publicly reported number was just 2478.
Although damning, some think the leak could have come from the Chinese Communist Party.
“None of us really know, but a leak from China is unusual,” said Allan Behm, head of the International and Security Affairs Program at The Australia Institute.
“The Chinese government is very secretive. It’s not the sort of government that wants to back down.”
He said it may also have also come from a citizen such as the doctor who was detained for “spreading false rumours” after he warned colleagues about the emergence of COVID-19.
But the leak does benefit the Chinese government in one department – it enables it to save face when it hands over its data from the early days of the pandemic, Mr Behm said.
“It might be to their credit in that the data is out,” he said.
“If you look at categories for diagnosis, their testing regime at the beginning was very slow – over three weeks to get a test result.
“Now that changed in the period of about six weeks. In other words, they set something of an international standard.
“So in a curious way, the document shows China as fumbling in a world of chaos at the start, but moving quickly to establish international benchmarks.”
He said the biggest clue was that the Chinese Communist Party had not yet denounced the document.
“There have been no denials from the CCP,” he said. “And they were forestalling critical response by not releasing data at the beginning.”
The leak comes as China’s state media has been pushing different theories about the origins of the virus before the international investigation starts in the country.
The official Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a Facebook post last week that “all available evidence” suggested the virus “did not start in central China’s Wuhan”.
The country’s leading scientists have been suggesting the virus was imported into China on frozen food packaging, a theory that puts them at odds with their international counterparts.
Wu Zunyou, a leading epidemiologist at China’s Centre for Disease Control, told Beijing News last month it was likely the outbreak came from imported food.
“If we think back to the early outbreak in Wuhan at the start of the year, the patients from Huanan seafood market were concentrated in the frozen seafood section,” he said.
“These clues all point to imported cold chain seafood being the outbreak’s origin.”
But the director of the health emergencies program at the WHO, Michael Ryan, said in November it would be “highly speculative” to suggest COVID-19 did not originate in the country.
“It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,” he told a press briefing in Geneva.
Expert on international relations and defence studies and ANU Professor John Blaxland said China had played its hand poorly on this in a manner that had hugely damaged its credibility.
“No one seriously believes them any more,” he said.
“They’re just digging a deeper hole and it’s damaging to China’s place in the world.”
Australia is still reeling from a storm of economic and trade threats sparked by Foreign Minister Marise Payne declaring in April the government would push for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19.
The declaration sparked heated debate over how to handle diplomatic relations with our biggest trading partner.
But Professor Blaxland said the response from the CCP to the virus outbreak and Australia’s involvement, have all been about pride.
“The motivation is saving face, internally and externally,” he said.
“First is the internal dynamic where President Xi Jinping is seeking to bolster his control over the CCP and then the external factor is seeking to elicit subservience from countries like Australia.”
China has been attempting to rescue its international reputation since the pandemic broke out, and just last week gave assurances to the WHO that international experts would soon be able to travel to China to help investigate the animal origins of COVID-19.
WHO investigators visited Wuhan earlier this year but were unable to visit the food market linked to the outbreak.
Professor Blaxland said it’s important the investigation takes place to stop it happening in the future.
“We need to know how it happened, not just for a historical interest, but we need to prevent it from recurring,” Professor Blaxland said.