Infectious-disease specialist with the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, Chuang Yin-ching, learned about the potential dangers of human to human transmission of the coronavirus when he visited Wuhan, China in early January.
Chinese health officials said during the conference, that the virus outbreak stemmed from one of the city’s seafood markets, but claimed it did not spread between people. Then, local officials began to report clusters of cases that contradicted those claims. When Chuang returned to Taiwan, he was convinced that China wasn’t being entirely truthful, reports The Washington Post. He decided to hold a news conference three days after his trip to warn of what would later be declared a global pandemic. Unlike the United States, Taiwan took immediate action.
As of Sunday, Taiwan reported fewer than 500 cases and seven deaths among its 23 million population. This compared to the U.S., which reported 5 million cases and more than 162,000 deaths, with a population upwards of 328 million. Donald Trump assured everything was “totally under control,” when the U.S. reported its first case on January 22. “It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control,” he said. “It’s going to be just fine.”
Now, with much objection from China, Taiwan is pushing hard to become a part of the WHO, arguing they can bring needed knowledge on public health to the world. This knowledge is largely from their efforts to get ahead of the curve with masks, contact tracing, testing, and quarantines—a strategy the U.S. didn’t implement until much later.
Taiwan began inspecting flights from Wuhan on December 31 and immediately formed a task force. Despite China’s claims, repeated by the WHO that the virus was not spreading between people, many infectious-disease specialists, some veterans of the 2003 SARS epidemic, were determined to dig deeper. When he arrived in Wuhan, Chuang said that officials briefed them verbally, without showing them epidemiological curves, or “epi curves,” that are essential to understanding outbreaks. “They did not provide a PowerPoint, they did not provide any curves, so I knew they were reluctant to show us everything,” he said. Chuang explained, “Most of the visitors tried to ask about human-to-human transmission, each one from a different angle.” Doctors remained tight-lipped, though, and he went home empty-handed. “Probably, they were not allowed to tell the truth,” he said.
When Chuang returned home, Taiwanese health officials immediately upped the travel advisory. They cautioned anyone traveling to Wuhan, to avoid crowded places and to inform their doctors if they developed any symptoms upon their return. Three days later, on January 19, the head of a Chinese government team finally confirmed what Chuang knew all along: the first known case of human-to-human transmission, echoed by the WHO. “I was disappointed,” Chuang said. Had countries listened to him; namely, the United States, would the outcome have been different? Now we’ll never know.