We May Never Know the Full Story of COVID-19

Grit plus luck was sufficient to break open the SARS story. I doubt the same will be true for COVID-19.

An illustration of a notebook with coronavirus-shaped holes in it
Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 1:07 p.m. on October 26, 2020.

Journalism, even practiced at its highest levels, has an element of chance. Reporters spend hours riding in taxis or trains or airplanes, or on the telephone or online, hoping to land that meeting that might yield a quote or secreted document resulting in a story. And if the story is particularly noteworthy, that’s a scoop. A big scoop for a reporter is like hitting your number at a roulette table.

In 2003, when SARS was threatening to become a global calamity, those of us covering China had to work long hours and put our chips down. SARS barely registered in the United States. The invasion of Iraq was looming, and the resources of big news operations were devoted to the Middle East. But for those of us in East Asia—I was the editor of Time Asia—SARS was what mattered. I never had a big scoop. I told myself that was because I’m not lucky. But others were able to report on the disease with a remarkable level of detail.

Looking back on the SARS outbreak from the vantage point of the 2020 pandemic, I’m struck by how easy we had it. I would never have used that word at the time, but I see now that grit plus luck was sufficient, for some, to break open the SARS story. I doubt the same will be true for COVID-19.

For reporters, uncovering the 2003 outbreak often meant seemingly interminable drives on treacherous Chinese highways to provincial capitals where the local public-health officials would refuse to see you. Although the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both frequently cooperated with reporters to provide reliable data, Chinese officials were reluctant to speak with Western reporters. By their career calculus, the risks of being seen to have revealed an embarrassing truth outweighed the potential contribution to the commonweal. Most of my long drives ended at closed doors to empty offices.

Better journalists than I got lucky, however: John Pomfret and Philip Pan of The Washington Post, Charles Hutzler of The Wall Street Journal, and Susan Jakes of Time magazine among them. They developed contacts and methodically interviewed doctors and scientists and discovered where and when the virus emerged and who were the index patients. They reported that the SARS coronavirus jumped from bats to civet cats to human beings in Guangdong Province in late 2002, where it first infected workers in the wild-animal trade.

Some of these doctors and scientists, many of whom had been educated in the West, were ultimately willing to speak with American journalists in part because they had seen how independent scientific apparatuses functioned. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, obfuscating and hiding data, was not acting up to the international standards these doctors and scientists had witnessed firsthand. “They were pissed off at the [Chinese Communist] Party and how they had done some foolish things as a result of covering up,” John Pomfret, who covered the 2003 outbreak for The Washington Post, told me. “They looked at Western news media as an outlet for truth about Chinese society because those stories could be refracted back into Chinese society.” Journals such as Caijing, published in Beijing, wrote up digests and analyses of foreign stories under the pretense of criticizing or analyzing foreign media with the net result that important stories could reach the Chinese public.

The SARS outbreak also coincided with a period of relative press freedom, particularly in Guangdong where Southern Metropolis Daily was publishing aggressive articles questioning the central government. The 2003 death of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker, in police custody became a national scandal because dogged Chinese journalists did the work—and got lucky and got the scoops. Such relative press freedom was also due to the looming Beijing Olympics. The Chinese Communist Party was courting international goodwill, lest the Games, something of a global coming-out party, be imperiled.

We were already worried our phones were being monitored. But we could easily switch out SIM cards or use the ubiquitous pay phones at local grocery stores. The surveillance system back then still relied on people following other people. And even trained state security agents can lose track of people. Under this relatively lax regime, Jakes, the Time reporter, was able to contact a trauma surgeon from Beijing’s 301 Hospital, Jiang Yanyong, who revealed the true extent and scope of the outbreak and the astonishing scale of the cover-up, including patients being wheeled out of hospitals via back exits as WHO inspectors were entering the front. Jakes had gotten lucky when Jiang's daughter-in-law reached out to her and said Jiang had written an open letter on what he had seen.* Jiang told Jakes that the Chinese government could not be relied on to tell the truth about the number of infected, sick, and dying.

The mayor of Beijing and the minister of health would both resign after Jakes’s stories, the only instance I can recall of high-level Chinese government ministers resigning due to a scoop.

Because of changes in China and the United States, reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak is more challenging. For a few weeks in January and February, journalists in Wuhan, some of them ordinary citizens, told the world what was happening at great personal risk. Then, in March, Chen Qiushi, one citizen journalist who wrote critical stories of the Chinese government’s initial handling of the outbreak, simply vanished. Chinese journalists and scientists have since been wary of speaking out. And very few Westerners have managed to report from Wuhan. We haven’t definitively learned much more about the origins of the disease since those first reports last year: Who was the index patient? Where does the host species reside? What species was the intermediary, if there was one? In other words, the answers to the journalistic questions who, what, when, and where.

The Communist Party’s security services have become so ruthless at shutting down dissent that today, a whistleblower like Jiang might hold back. “The willingness to enlarge the circle of pain has made a difference,” Pomfret told me. “Talk to a journalist now, and that could mean ruining your children’s life, your grandchildren’s. That has had a stultifying effect.”

These extreme measures are in part due to disease outbreaks being particularly embarrassing for governments that tout prosperity and “law and order” as primary claims to legitimacy.

The surveillance situation is far more extreme, as well. China is practically a cashless society, where transactions are made via smartphone. And buying a new SIM card requires an official, state-issued identification card that is duly noted and logged. A system that tracks you by your smartphone can always find you via your smartphone. In 2003, Jakes talked with Jiang on a pay phone before going to meet him on a subway; that sort of scenario is improbable now.

This time, the U.S., along with China, has been accused of manipulating scientific data for political ends, as the Trump administration has, among other attempts at interference, requested that some COVID-19 data be sent from the CDC and the FDA to the White House before being released to the public. China might still be manipulating scientific data for political ends. That’s not news. But now the U.S. appears to have joined in, casting doubt at a crucial time on the veracity of what had been one of the global standards for scientific probity, the CDC. (So highly regarded was the American CDC that China chose the same acronym for its own infectious-disease bureau.) The U.S. appears to have adopted part of the authoritarian playbook, subsuming science to politics, without any of the benefits. China has largely contained the outbreak; the U.S. has the world’s highest death toll.

America’s failure to contain the pandemic has resulted in an emboldened China much less concerned about its global public image, taking advantage of a distracted United States to implement a national security law that strips Hong Kong of press and individual freedoms. Journalism visas used to be freely issued to international news organizations in Hong Kong. No longer. Hong Kong public-health officials, who used to reliably answer the press and provide accurate data, have become as elusive and dissembling as their mainland colleagues. We might never know the full truth of what happened in Wuhan. And if we don’t know where the host species resides and exactly how the virus jumped to humans, we might be damned to continue this cycle of outbreaks.

In 2003, after repeated requests for an interview for my book on the SARS outbreak, the newly appointed minister of health, Wu Yi, agreed to meet with me in Beijing on November 18. I flew there from Hong Kong and met with her in a gilded, red-carpeted office with high-backed chairs. It was exceedingly rare for a politburo member to meet a member of the foreign press, so I was stunned when my assistant told me we had the interview. “No way that interview happens today,” Ian Johnson, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on China, told me. “There is basically no upside to talking to a foreign journalist. There is only risk.” The meeting didn’t result in any scoops, and fell into the broad category of “building good relations.” Still, as a reporter working on a book about a disease outbreak, I felt it was important to get the highest-ranking officials in the country on the record.

I had another meeting in Shenzhen that afternoon and so flew back to that city across the border from Hong Kong. I then took the train from Lo Wu to Hong Hum station, where I set down my briefcase to buy an Octopus card, as the local subway passes were called. My briefcase, with my computer and notes in it, was snatched. I lost the first 40,000 words of the book and a huge trove of my notes, which I had been backing up on an iPod, which back then could be used as a hard drive, and which I had reflexively shoved into the briefcase before beginning my transaction. I reported the theft to the nearest Hong Kong police station, where a Sergeant Yiu took down my statement and the theft officially became case No. 03027895. He made it very clear that there was little the police could do to find the thief.

It was one of the worst nights of my life. I had never felt so unlucky. Nearly a year of reporting and writing was gone. I felt as if all my dreams had been destroyed. It took more than a month for me to even begin thinking about starting my book again.

My wife and several other reporters raised the possibility that the Chinese government had set me up, had snatched my briefcase and computer to see what I knew, indeed, to check to see if I had a scoop. I dismissed this speculation. It seemed grandiose to imagine that I was important enough for the Chinese government to monitor, track, and then rob. I hoped it had been a simple theft, rather than a government operation, for the safety of my sources. But if they wanted to be absolutely sure I didn’t have anything truly embarrassing to the state, that was the only way.

Now they could just hack my phone.

*This article previously misidentified the writer of the open letter and the person who contacted Susan Jakes. They are Jiang Yanyong and his daughter-in-law, respectively.