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COVID-19: China testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms

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.

December 03, 2020 / 07:55 PM IST

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.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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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.

“There were very, very few tests, basically none….if you couldn’t prove you were positive, you couldn’t get admitted to a hospital,” his mother, Zhong Hanneng, said in a tearful interview in October. “The doctor said there was nothing that could be done.”

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 U.S., 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.”

China’s foreign ministry and China’s top medical agency, the National Health Commission, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“We did a brilliant job, we worked so hard,” said Gao Fu, the head of China CDC, in a videoconference in July. “Unluckily, unfortunately, this virus we are facing, it’s so special.”

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.

Associated Press
first published: Dec 3, 2020 04:46 pm

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