2022 3M Truth in Science Award, Large Newsroom finalist

As the pandemic exploded, a researcher saw the danger. China’s leaders kept silent.

About the Project

The global pandemic has killed more than 6 million people. But how it began remains a mystery, as does the reason it began to spread so wildly in the first weeks of 2020.

With deeply sourced reporting, the Washington Post Editorial Board has pointed the way to some possible answers. The Editorial Board started with what is known: The pandemic began in China, which is ruled by a single party with a monopoly on power and no tolerance for dissent. China’s government has blamed sources beyond its borders for the virus, and steadfastly refused to allow any independent investigation into how the pandemic began.

The editorial, published April 22, 2022, looked behind the scenes at a critical period, the first weeks after the outbreak, when the spreading virus might have been contained and a global pandemic averted. Instead, as fresh material uncovered in the editorial showed, China’s leaders failed to warn the world and their own people what was happening. The coronavirus raced out of Wuhan to infect the world.

The editorial tells the story of a researcher at a next-generation biological laboratory in Guangzhou in southern China. The researcher was among the first to discover that the virus from Wuhan was probably a variant of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which had first hit China in 2003. She and her co-workers exchanged text messages in which they worried about the need to alert the public and take action to stop the spread. They were particularly alarmed to see the government go silent — and fail to do so.

The researcher wrote down her impressions and preserved her text messages in a series of compelling — and chillingly prophetic — online blog posts. Perhaps realizing that they could be controversial, she took down the postings two days after she had put them up. But they were already copied online. The Post worked with a group of internet sleuths who go by the acronym DRASTIC to recover the blog posts and have them translated. This information formed the backbone of the editorial, which also undertook a careful examination of the government’s actions in January 2020, when the researcher was expressing her concerns privately.

The Post’s opinions visuals team carefully replicated the researchers’ text messages and displayed them in a dynamic presentation that helped put readers squarely into the time and place and context in which they were written. The whole package leads to an inescapable conclusion: China’s leaders covered up the early outbreak at a time when they should have been acting in public to warn the nation and the world. As the Editorial Board noted: “Her story points to a coverup with tragic consequences of historic proportion. A severe danger was concealed until it was too late. It came about because of a culture that prioritizes political stability at any cost, extraordinary state secrecy, and missteps by public health officials who did not speak out.”