The world’s most famous medical journal, The Lancet, sat on vital information being suppressed by China proving that the COVID virus could jump from human to human and was spreading outside of Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic.
Its editors also failed to share critical evidence – given to them by brave Chinese scientists trying to alert the world to the danger of the new disease – that showed the new coronavirus could be spread by people who were not displaying symptoms.
The revelation has emerged in a new book by Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.
He was shocked by the behaviour of the journal, since speedy action is vital to deal with any emerging virus outbreak.
It adds to concern over The Lancet, which is at the centre of a controversy over the role of influential scientific media in appeasing the Chinese authorities and stifling debate about suggestions that COVID could have leaked from a Wuhan lab.
‘At a time when every second counted, The Lancet seems to have been sitting on information to run as an exclusive rather than getting it out as fast as possible into the public domain,’ said Tory MP Bob Seely.
‘It should have informed the world’s scientists, doctors and public health professionals as soon as possible.’
Last month, The Mail on Sunday revealed that The Lancet refused to publish an article critical of China’s horrifying repression of Uighurs as it might cause problems for staff at its Beijing office.
The journal has also been criticised over a controversial letter attacking ‘conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin’ that was drafted by Peter Daszak, whose charity funded high-risk experiments on coronaviruses in a Wuhan lab.
Sir Jeremy, a member of the Government’s Sage committee, has disclosed how he was contacted in alarm by Thijs Kuiken, a Dutch professor and government adviser, over a scientific research paper that he was sent by The Lancet to review on January 16, 2020.
In a new book on the pandemic he has written with science journalist Anjana Ahuja, Sir Jeremy describes the paper’s contents as ‘one of the standout moments in the whole epidemic, the reddest in a constellation of red flags’.
For the research reported that a family from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen who had travelled to Wuhan to stay with relatives over New Year showed that the virus was ‘consistent with person-to-person transmission’.
The family had not been to Wuhan’s infamous seafood market, then being falsely blamed as the source of the outbreak, but two of them had visited a hospital.
Another member, who had not travelled to Wuhan, fell ill when the rest of the group returned home.
Prof. Kuiken instantly realised this was crucial information amid an unfolding world health crisis – but his role as a confidential reviewer precluded him from sharing details. So he sent in his review the next day to The Lancet, expecting it to be published immediately.
He told Sir Jeremy that he contacted The Lancet ‘to say the information should be made public because it was the first scientific proof that the virus was spreading human to human. They either would not or could not do it.’
After nothing appeared within 24 hours, the professor emailed Sir Jeremy. He agreed the findings should be shared urgently.
‘If there was a novel contagious disease that could spread asymptomatically between people, the world needed to know immediately,’ said Sir Jeremy. ‘Speed matters perhaps more than anything else in disease outbreaks.’
Sir Jeremy emailed and messaged Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, but got no reply.
The following day he tipped off a contact at the World Health Organisation (WHO). Within 24 hours, China belatedly confirmed human transmission. Beijing highlighted people in southern China who had caught COVID from family members.
State media also said some medics were infected. In truth, a single Wuhan hospital already had two floors filled with sick doctors.
Prof. Kuiken had also told the research paper’s authors to make the findings public. But he was unaware that one – a renowned Hong Kong microbiologist called Yuen Kwok-yung – had tried to raise the alarm in China already.
Prof Yuen, who helped to identify the first Sars outbreak in 2003, had told Chinese officials of the researchers’ alarming findings – which followed earlier warnings that the new virus was ‘clearly contagious’.
‘We admitted the patients to hospital on January 10 and confirmed the cases on January 12 using our rapid testing kits,’ Prof Yuen said last March.
A key study by Southampton University found that if China had acted to lock down Wuhan even one week earlier, the number of cases would have been cut by two-thirds, significantly limiting COVID’s spread.
Instead, the regime silenced doctors, covered up the outbreak’s severity and shut down public discussion.
On January 14, 2020, the day after the first case emerged abroad, a leaked memo from a Chinese health official admitted ‘human-to-human transmission is possible’, and warned of ‘a major public health event’.
Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert, said The Lancet was not the only journal that had sat on important pandemic research in hope of being first to publish.
‘The practice has cost lives,’ he said. ‘It is unconscionable and unforgivable.’
Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, said the reviewer was put in a difficult position and The Lancet should have ensured the Shenzhen evidence reached the public domain immediately.
‘Although they did well to peer-review and publish the paper in just over a week, given the importance of this particular report it would have been even better if they had encouraged the authors to alert the WHO and put it on a pre-print site while it was being peer-reviewed.’
The use of such online sites has boomed in the pandemic. MedRxiv, jointly run by the BMJ, Yale and Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in New York, published more than 200 papers in January last year.
The Lancet, which published the study on January 24, refused to say when it received the research but said all papers of major public health importance were shared as soon as possible while ensuring rigorous peer-review.
‘Our authors are encouraged to share unpublished papers that have been submitted to The Lancet journals directly with relevant medical and public health bodies, and funders, as well as via pre-print servers,’ said a spokeswoman.