(CNN)China still faces the “big challenge” of a potential second wave of Covid-19 infections, the country’s top respiratory authority has warned, with the lack of immunity among the community a serious concern as the race to develop a vaccine continues.
Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the Chinese government’s senior medical adviser and the public face of the country’s fight against Covid-19, also confirmed in an exclusive interview with CNN on Saturday that local authorities in Wuhan, the city where the novel coronavirus was first reported in December, had suppressed key details about the magnitude of the initial outbreak.
China has reported more than 82,000 coronavirus cases, with at least 4,633 deaths, according to data from the country’s National Health Commission (NHC). The number of new infections surged quickly in late January, prompting city lockdowns and nationwide travel bans.
By early February, China was reporting as many as 3,887 fresh cases a day. A month later, however, daily cases had dropped into the double digits — while in the US, the number of daily infections skyrocketed, from 47 new cases on March 6 to 22,562 by the end of the month.
Having now largely contained the virus, life in China is slowly returning to normal. Lockdowns have eased and some schools and factories have reopened across the country.
But Zhong said Chinese authorities should not be complacent, with the danger of a second wave of infections looming large. Fresh clusters of coronavirus cases have emerged across China in recent weeks, in Wuhan as well as the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin.
“The majority of … Chinese at the moment are still susceptible of the Covid-19 infection, because (of) a lack of immunity,” Zhong said. “We are facing (a) big challenge, it’s not better than the foreign countries I think at the moment.”
“They didn’t like to tell the truth”
Zhong is known as the “SARS hero” in China for combating the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003. This time around, he has led the country’s coronavirus response — especially in the critical early stages of the outbreak.
On January 20, it was Zhong who confirmed on state broadcaster CCTV that the coronavirus can be transmitted between people, after Wuhan health authorities had maintained for weeks that there was no clear evidence for human-to-human transmission, and that the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.”
Heading a team of experts dispatched by the NHC to investigate the initial outbreak, Zhong visited Wuhan on January 18. He said that upon his arrival, he received many calls from doctors and former students, warning him that the situation was much worse than the official reports had claimed.
“The local authorities, they didn’t like to tell the truth at that time,” Zhong said.
“At the very beginning they kept silent, and then I said probably we have (a larger) number of people being infected.”
Zhong said he became suspicious when the number of officially reported cases in Wuhan remained at 41 for more than 10 days — despite infections emerging overseas.
“I didn’t believe that result, so I (kept) asking and then, you have to give me the real number,” he said. “I suppose they are very reluctant to answer my question.”
In Beijing two days later, on January 20, he was told the total number of cases in Wuhan was now 198, with three people killed and 13 medical workers infected.
In a meeting with central government officials, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, that same day, he proposed to lock Wuhan down to contain the virus’ spread.
The move was unprecedented. The central government placed Wuhan under lockdown on January 23, canceling all flights, trains and buses in and out of the city, and blocking major highway entrances.
The Wuhan lockdown was eventually lifted 76 days later.
In an interview with CCTV on January 27, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted that his government did not disclose information on the coronavirus to the public “in a timely fashion,” saying, “as a local government, we can only disclose information after being authorized.”
In February, China fired several senior officials amid widespread criticism of the local authorities’