Coronavirus News Asia

Could Taiwan have saved the world from Covid-19?


Many people in the West – apparently led on by the US government – believe that the Chinese government covered up information regarding the initial extent of the Covid-19 epidemic in China. Some asserted that the death toll in China was actually orders of magnitude higher.

When that could not be proved, some took to the notion that China kept data regarding human-to-human transmission from the world. The supposed evidence? An e-mail Taiwanese authorities sent to the World Health Organization on December 31.

This e-mail has often been presented as evidence that Taiwan learned of and warned the WHO about human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, but that the WHO ignored it. But as it turns out, the e-mail did not make any such assertion. No one has been able to present evidence of an e-mail from Taiwan to the WHO reporting any information about human-to-human transmission.

The Taiwan Centers for Disease Control has now put up a page indicating the “facts” about that e-mail. As it turns out, Taiwan concedes now that when it sent out the e-mail, it did not have any evidence about what was happening in Wuhan other than “online sources” and “rumors that were circulating.”

The Taiwan CDC insists, however, that because the mainland authorities had used the term “atypical pneumonia,” which was also used in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Taiwan authorities had speculated that human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, was a possibility.

Well, of course transmission was considered a possibility. However, epidemiology and public policy are not about speculations.

No one wants a repeat of the H1N1 fiasco of a few years ago. (See, for example, Sound the Alarm? A Swine Flu Bind, New York Times, 2009; The elusive definition of pandemic influenza, Bulletin of the WHO, 2011; Swine flu: is panic the key to successful modern health policy?, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2010.) What is needed is evidence to inform a commensurate response. This is what the Chinese experts and authorities worked so hard to figure out.

Evidence would soon come forth. Chinese researchers would determine a novel coronavirus to be the cause of these new pneumonia cases on January 8. On January 11, they would publish the sequence to the world. And on January 20, they would confirm human-to-human transmission. (For a detailed review of the Chinese early response, see for example this report.)


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