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Chinese censorship is quietly rewriting the history of COVID-19


Under government pressure, Chinese scientists have recanted their studies and have hidden or erased data.

In early 2020, on the same day a terrifying new disease was officially named COVID-19, a team of scientists from the United States and China released critical data showing how fast the virus was spreading and who they were dying.

The study was cited in

health alerts

around the world and appeared to be a model for international collaboration at a time of crisis.

Checking on a man who collapsed near a hospital in Wuhan in January 2020. Photo .Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

However, within a few days, the researchers quietly removed the article, which was


online by a message asking the scientists not to cite it.

Some observers took note of the peculiar move, but the entire episode quickly fizzled out amid the frenzy of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is now clear is that the study

was not withdrawn

because the research was flawed.

Instead, it was withdrawn by order of the

Chinese health authorities

amid a campaign against science.

That effort raised a cloud of dust around the dates of the first COVID cases, such as those reported in the study.

"It was very difficult to get information from China," said one of the authors, Ira Longini of the University of Florida, who first described the background to the withdrawal publicly in a recent interview.

"There was so much covered and so much hidden."

It is well documented that the Chinese government muzzled scientists, hampered international investigations, and censored online discussions of the pandemic.

But Beijing's grasp on information runs much deeper than even many pandemic researchers are aware.

His censorship campaign has targeted international journals and scientific databases, shaking the foundations of shared scientific knowledge, a

New York Times investigation has revealed.

Under pressure from their government, Chinese scientists have withheld data, removed genetic sequences from public databases and altered crucial details in journal submissions.

Western magazine publishers have facilitated these efforts by accepting the changes or withdrawing articles for unclear reasons, a Times review of more than a dozen retracted articles revealed.

Groups like the World Health Organization have given credence to confusing data and imprecise timelines.

This scientific censorship has not been successful everywhere:

The original version of the February 2020 article, for example, can still be found on the internet with a bit of research.

But the campaign deprived doctors and policy makers of critical information about the virus at a time when the world needed it most.

It sparked mistrust of science in Europe and the United States, as health authorities cited documents from China that were later retracted.

The crackdown continues to breed misinformation today and has hampered efforts to determine the origins of the virus.

This censorship came to the fore recently, when an international group of scientists discovered genetic sequence data that Chinese researchers had collected at a Wuhan market in January 2020, but had withheld from foreign experts for three years, a delay that world health authorities called it "inexcusable".

The sequences showed that raccoon dogs, an animal similar to foxes, had deposited genetic signatures in the same place where the genetic material of the virus had been left, a finding consistent with a scenario in which the virus spread to people. from illegally traded market animals.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

At a news conference this month, scientists from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention called such criticism



It is impossible to attribute a single motive to the repression.

Beijing controls and shapes information as something natural, especially in times of crisis.

But part of the censorship changed the timing of the first infections, a sensitive issue as the government faced criticism over whether it responded to the outbreak quickly enough.

There is no evidence that the censorship is designed to hide a specific scenario of the origins of the pandemic.

Some scientists believe that COVID-19 spread naturally from animals to humans.

Others maintain that it may have spread from a Chinese laboratory.

Both sides have pointed to the redacted data to support their theories.

But they agree on one point:

The Chinese government's control over science has stifled the search for the truth.

"I think there is a major political agenda affecting the science," said Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney who was part of the group that analyzed the sequences containing raccoon dog DNA.

Shortly after the group alerted Chinese researchers to their findings, the genetic sequences temporarily disappeared from a global database.

"It's pathetic that we're at this stage where we're having surreptitious conversations about erased data," Holmes said.

ever changing dates

For a brief moment, the coronavirus seemed to defy China's notoriously tight control of information.

On February 6, 2020, when a pandemic still seemed possible to be avoided, the internet lit up with the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who had been punished for warning about the outbreak before falling ill.

Anger boiled over.

People had the feeling that officials had withheld information that could save lives.

All over China they were wondering:

How many had contracted the virus in December?

Who knew?

Why hadn't more been done?

At the time, researchers confirmed that the virus had been spreading from person-to-person for weeks, a fact that Chinese officials had initially ruled out.

The Chinese government reacted by tightening Internet censorship and wresting control of the investigation.

At first, the censorship was piecemeal.

The Ministry of Science and Technology told scientists to give priority to managing the outbreak and not publishing articles.

A European scientist recalled that his Chinese collaborators asked him to sign a


agreement in which he promised not to share research data that had already been published.

Soon, the Chinese researchers asked the journals to retract their papers.

Journals can withdraw articles for a number of legitimate reasons, such as faulty data.

But an analysis of more than a dozen retracted articles from China shows a pattern of review or suppression of investigations into early cases, conditions for medical workers and the spread of the virus, topics that could make the government look bad.

The retracted articles examined by the Times had been flagged by

Retraction Watch

, a group that tracks withdrawn investigations.

Among them was a study involving infected children in southern China;

a survey on depression and anxiety among Chinese medical workers who had been treating COVID-19 patients;

and even a letter published in

The Lancet Global Health

by two nurses describing the despair they felt while working in hospitals in Wuhan.

"Even experienced nurses can cry too," they wrote.

Journals are often slow to retract articles, even when proven to be fraudulent or unethical.

But in China, the calculation is different, said Ivan Oransky, founder of Retraction Watch.

Journals that want to sell subscriptions in China or publish Chinese research often bow to the government's demands.

"Science publishers have done everything possible to appease calls for censorship," he says.

As the virus spread, China formalized its controls.

A government task force has been tasked with all coronavirus research.

Officials from the eastern province of Zhejiang discussed "strengthening management" of scientific results, according to the records.

On March 9, scientists from leading Chinese laboratories published an article on the possible mutation of the coronavirus.

The research appeared in Clinical Infectious Diseases, a prestigious journal published by Oxford University Press.

The topic was apparently apolitical, but was based on samples collected from patients in Wuhan starting in mid-December 2019.

That added to the evidence that the virus was spreading widely before the Chinese government took action.

The document landed just as the government formalized its censorship policy.

The next day, China's Ministry of Education ordered universities to submit research topics to the government task force for approval, according to a directive posted on a university website.

Those who did not approve their scientific projects or who caused "serious adverse social impacts" would be punished, the directive said.

The move sent chills through Chinese science.

Colleges tightened restrictions on interviews with the media and instructed professors to abide by the directive, university announcements show.

Magazine retractions continued, and for unusual reasons.

One group of authors noted that "our data are not perfect enough."

Another cautioned that his article "cannot be used as a basis for the origin and evolution of SARS-CoV-2."

A third said their findings were "incomplete and not ready for publication."

Several scientists promised in retraction notices to update their findings, but never did.

Since Chinese scientists have been muzzled, it is difficult to clearly distinguish between censored articles and those retracted for legitimate scientific reasons.

Censorship helped the government tell a story.

"China emerged from the pandemic as one of the early winners," says Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at Seton Hall University.

"They started to present a new narrative about the outbreak, in terms of not only the origin, but also the role of the government in the response to the pandemic."

Two months after publishing the article on coronavirus mutations, Clinical Infectious Diseases published an update.

The new version said that the Wuhan samples were not collected in December after all, but weeks later, in January.

The paper's author, Li Mingkun, of the Beijing Institute of Genomics, did not respond to requests for comment.

After Jesse Bloom of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center tweeted about the discrepancy, the journal's editors published a third version of the article, adding another timeline.

This review says that the samples were collected between December 30 and January 1.

The correction merely says that the earlier dates had been "unclear."

In an email to the Times, the journal's editors said the correction was "the most appropriate approach to clarifying the scientific record."

A mystery about the origin

Chinese scientists ignored requests to release information about swabs taken from Wuhan market surfaces for years.

That refusal has hampered efforts to determine how the pandemic began.

Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney, says that two years ago he insisted to Chinese researchers on the importance of these samples.

He even sent them the genome sequence of a raccoon dog, hoping they would compare it to samples on the market.

The researchers did not make the data public until this year.


World Health Organization

, supposedly the repository of reliable information on the virus, has only increased the confusion about the origins of the pandemic.

After errors were discovered in a major March 2021 report from the organization and China, an agency spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, vowed that officials would correct the errors.

Two years later, they haven't.

The flawed report remains online and presents an inaccurate timeline of the first known cases.

Jasarevic now refers questions about the report to the scientists who produced it.

"This is a profound and in many ways unforgivable mystery, when the data was shown to be false," said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and a WHO adviser during many years.

"Either it shows that the WHO didn't push China hard enough, or that China just didn't cooperate."

Some scientists also suspect that Chinese censorship has affected the genetic databases that underpin global research.

Bloom, an evolutionary virus expert in Seattle, was poring over tables from a scientific paper in June 2021 when he discovered that dozens of genetic sequences had been removed from the Sequence Read Archive, a US government database.

The sequences, from the beginning of 2020, had been sent by scientists from the University of Wuhan.

But curiously they had disappeared.

The US government's National Library of Medicine, which manages the database, said at the time that the Wuhan researchers had asked for the sequences to be removed, implying that it was the only case during the pandemic in in which data had been removed at the request of scientists in China.

But a March 2022 review by an outside consultant showed that another unrelated sequence had been removed by scientists on the same day.

After Bloom published an article about the deleted sequences from Wuhan University, they reappeared on the Internet, but most had been moved to a Chinese government-affiliated database.

This controversy and the recent controversy over raccoon dog DNA discovered-missing-missing from another database have led to calls for transparency of these genetic files.

Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, said all pandemic-related sequences should be made available to global health experts, especially those from early samples.

"Among the people who got sick in December, we have fewer than 20 sequences," he said.

(The National Library of Medicine said sharing retired data was against his policy.)

Chinese government control over science continues.

The laboratory of a Chinese scientist who studies the trade in wild animals was recently shut down while authorities investigated unfounded concerns that his research was linked to the origins of the pandemic, according to a scientist from outside China who helped on the work.

On April 1, Beijing limited foreigners' access to China's National Knowledge Infrastructure, an academic portal that restricts knowledge from their research.

The leaders have urged Chinese scientists to publish in national journals rather than international publications.

And this month, Chinese government scientists said it was time to start looking outside of China for the origins of the virus.

It was a nod to the widely contested claim that the pandemic started elsewhere.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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