A health official in Beijing acknowledged that China had destroyed the earliest samples of the novel coronavirus, “Based on comprehensive research and expert opinion, we decided to temporarily manage the pathogen causing the pneumonia as Class II — highly pathogenic — and imposed biosafety requirements on sample collection, transport, and experimental activities, as well as destroying the samples,” the National Health Commission’s Liu Dengfeng told reporters.
The statement comes in the wake of demands from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has cited the unavailability of the virus samples to argue that the Chinese Communist Party is flouting international transparency regulations at the expense of global public health.
“China didn’t share all of the information it had,” Pompeo told reporters last month. “It censored those who tried to warn the world, it ordered a halt to testing of new samples, and it destroyed existing samples. The CCP still has not shared the virus sample from inside of China with the outside world, making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution.”
Liu claimed that Pompeo’s remarks are “intended to confuse,” maintaining that the samples were destroyed as a precautionary measure.
“If a lab does not have the necessary conditions to store samples, they should destroy the samples on-site or send them to professional storage institutions,” Liu said. “Those are strictly enforced rules.”
The virus samples were destroyed after a flurry of tests in late December that “all pointed to a dangerous SARS-like virus,” according to a report from an independent Chinese media outlet, Caixin Global.
“That was days before China notified the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31 about the emergence of an unidentified infectious disease, two weeks before it shared the virus’s genome sequence with the world, and crucially, more than three weeks before Chinese authorities confirmed publicly that the virus was spreading between people,” Caixin Global noted.
China’s National Health Commission ordered the samples to be destroyed on Jan. 3, according to the report. Pompeo suggested last month that the lack of samples and other information possessed by China has slowed global efforts “to both develop therapeutics and a vaccine and to understand where this virus is.”