China coronavirus testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms

China coronavirus testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms
GeneoDx Biotech, above, was one of the three companies who paid the China CDC for the information and the distribution rights, according to an AP report. (AP)
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Updated 03 December 2020

China coronavirus testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms

China coronavirus testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms
  • Flawed testing system prevented scientists and officials from seeing how fast the virus was spreading

WUHAN, China: In the early days in Wuhan, the first city first struck by the virus, getting a COVID test was so difficult that residents compared it to winning the lottery.
Throughout the Chinese city in January, thousands of people waited in hours-long lines for hospitals, sometimes next to corpses lying in hallways. But most couldn’t get the test they needed to be admitted as patients. And for the few who did, the tests were often faulty, resulting in false negatives.
The widespread test shortages and problems at a time when the virus could have been slowed were caused largely by secrecy and cronyism at China’s top disease control agency, an Associated Press investigation has found.
The flawed testing system prevented scientists and officials from seeing how fast the virus was spreading – another way China fumbled its early response to the virus. Earlier AP reporting showed how top Chinese leaders delayed warning the public and withheld information from the World Health Organization, supplying the most comprehensive picture yet of China’s initial missteps. Taken together, these mistakes in January facilitated the virus’ spread through Wuhan and across the world undetected, in a pandemic that has now sickened more than 64 million people and killed almost 1.5 million.
China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention gave test kit designs and distribution rights exclusively to three then-obscure Shanghai companies with which officials had personal ties, the reporting found. The deals took place within a culture of backdoor connections that quietly flourished in an underfunded public health system, according to the investigation, which was based on interviews with more than 40 doctors, CDC employees, health experts, and industry insiders, as well as hundreds of internal documents, contracts, messages and emails obtained by the AP.
The Shanghai companies – GeneoDx Biotech, Huirui Biotechnology, and BioGerm Medical Technology – paid the China CDC for the information and the distribution rights, according to two sources with knowledge of the transaction who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution. The price: One million RMB ($146,600) each, the sources said. It’s unclear whether the money went to specific individuals.
In the meantime, the CDC and its parent agency, the National Health Commission, tried to prevent other scientists and organizations from testing for the virus with their own homemade kits. In a departure from past practice for at least two epidemics, the NHC told Wuhan hospitals to send virus samples – from which tests can be developed – only to labs under its authority. It also made testing requirements to confirm coronavirus cases much more complicated, and endorsed only test kits made by the Shanghai companies.
These measures contributed to not a single new case being reported by Chinese authorities between Jan. 5 and 17, even though retrospective infection data shows that hundreds were infected. The apparent lull in cases meant officials were slow to take early actions such as warning the public, barring large gatherings and curbing travel. One study estimates that intervention two weeks earlier could have reduced the number of cases by 86 percent, although it’s uncertain whether earlier action could have halted the spread of the virus worldwide.
When tests from the three companies arrived, many didn’t work properly, turning out inconclusive results or false negatives. And technicians were hesitant to use test kits that would later prove more accurate from more established companies, because the CDC did not endorse them.
With few and faulty kits, only one in 19 infected people in Wuhan was tested and found positive as of Jan. 31, according to an estimate by Imperial College London. Others without tests or with false negatives were sent back home, where they could spread the virus.
Days after he first started coughing on Jan. 23rd, Peng Yi, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, waited in an eight-hour line at a Wuhan hospital. A CT scan showed signs of viral infection in both his lungs, but he couldn’t get the test he needed to be hospitalized.
When Peng finally got a test on Jan. 30, it turned out negative. But his fever wouldn’t drop, and his family begged officials for another test.
His second test, on Feb. 4, turned out positive. It was too late. Weeks later, Peng passed away.
China was hardly the only country to grapple with testing, which varied widely from nation to nation. Germany, for example, developed a test that became the World Health Organization gold standard days after the Chinese government released genetic sequences on Jan. 12. But in the US, the CDC declined to use the WHO design and insisted on developing its own kits, which turned out to be faulty and led to even longer delays than in China.
Other countries also had the benefit of learning from China’s experience. But China was grappling with a new pathogen, and it wasn’t yet clear how bad the pandemic would be or how many tests would be needed.
“It was very early,” said Jane Duckett, a professor at the University of Glasgow examining the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus. She said the government was “just trying to figure it out.”
Still, the hiccups and delays in China were especially consequential because it was the first country to detect the virus.
“Because you have only three companies providing testing kits, it kept the capacity of testing very limited,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was a major problem that led to the rapid increase in cases and deaths.”


Kremlin says would welcome Biden’s efforts to extend New START arms control treaty

Kremlin says would welcome Biden’s efforts to extend New START arms control treaty
Updated 20 January 2021

Kremlin says would welcome Biden’s efforts to extend New START arms control treaty

Kremlin says would welcome Biden’s efforts to extend New START arms control treaty
  • The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads
  • A failure to extend New START could fuel a potential arms race and tensions between Moscow and Washington

MOSCOW: The Kremlin said on Wednesday it remained committed to extending the New START nuclear arms control treaty with the United States and would welcome efforts promised by the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden to reach agreement.
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord, which was signed in 2010 and expires in February, limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers that Russia and the United States can deploy.
“Russia and its president are in favor of preserving this agreement,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “If our American colleagues will in fact demonstrate a political will to preserve this pact by extending it, this can only be welcomed.”
Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Tuesday that the incoming US administration would seek to extend the pact and decide how long an extension to pursue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year called on Washington to extend the last major nuclear arms pact between the two countries for a year without any conditions.
A failure to extend New START could fuel a potential arms race and tensions between Moscow and Washington.