Secret U.S. Cable Accuses China of Coverup During 2006 Bird Flu Spread

AP Photo/Andy Wong
AP Photo/Andy Wong

Fourteen years before China was widely accused of covering up its coronavirus outbreak, U.S. diplomatic cables confidentially charged that China attempted to hide the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza, also known as the bird flu.

Rewind to March 30, 2006. A sensitive dispatch from the U.S. Consulate General in the southern China province of Guangzhou informed numerous U.S. government agencies about alleged Chinese misdeeds in covering up a human avian influenza (AI) death. The episode bears striking resemblance to the accusations currently being lobbed against China over its coronavirus actions.

The government cable told a story of Chinese officials outright misleading American officials about the 2006 bird flu outbreak while engaging in a media blackout and disseminating “misinformation.”  The storyline included a man visiting “wet markets” in Guangzhou.

On the same day the man died of the avian influenza, the cables say that top Chinese public health officials from Guangzhou claimed to a U.S. medical military delegation that not a single reported case of avian influenza – either human or animal – had occurred in over a year in Guangdong province.

Also, the cable said that throughout the ordeal China never contacted the World Health Organization to warn them about the outbreak.

The H5N1 virus was circulating in birds for years before 2006, but that year marked a dangerous global turning point when the 2006 strain evidenced fast mutations and worryingly high infectious traits. Although there were a few cases of human infection in previous years, any new human infection of the 2006 strain would be critical to immediately report to stop a potential global pandemic.

The 2006 cable was previously posted on the Internet when WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of U.S. government documents. The cable takes on renewed significance considering the current Chinese coronavirus global pandemic.

The U.S. consulate cable was transmitted to the CIA, U.S. Pacific Command, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as various State Department branches, including the Secretary of State.

The cable noted that by the time it was written, March 30, 2006, Chinese officials were finally showing signs of cooperation after obfuscation on the outbreak. The document expressed concern that China still was not being transparent.

The dispatch repeatedly noted that China only started to cooperate after foreign news media outlets began to report on the case.

The cable told the story of a 32-year-old man who fell ill with the bird flu on February 22 of that year and died on March 2.

In what might seem like an eerily familiar pattern today, the cable from 15 years ago states:

On the same day of the death, top Guangdong public health officials declared to a U.S. medical military delegation that no reported AI case (human or animal) had occurred in over a year in Guangdong province.  This misinformation comes in addition to other reported media blackouts.  It appears that it is only because of pressure of Western media leaks, which eventually forced mainland media to provide more detailed information.

The U.S. cable described the man as a jobless Guangzhou resident. Yet a subsequent Chinese official document claimed the man “had visited agricultural markets frequently to conduct market research before he became ill.”

Chinese media reports cited in the cable said the man “spent extended periods near a live poultry slaughterhouse in order to conduct market surveys. “

The Chinese media said the man had visited 12 different wet markets in central Guangzhou, fueling speculation that he caught the virus at the wet markets.

It was not clear why a man described by the U.S. cable as “jobless” would have been conducting research in wet markets.

On March 4, two days after the death and ten days after he first fell ill with extreme symptoms, the Chinese government finally sent the U.S. consulate a diplomatic note about the death. The note was in Chinese without any English translation. The Chinese note came only after foreign media outlets began reporting on the case.

It was clear that China immediately acted on the case before it saw fit to inform the U.S. Immediately after the March 2 death the cable noted Chinese health officials put 124 close contacts of the man in quarantine and special hospitals in Guangdong were put on “tier-three alert.”

The cable relates: “Prior to the March 4 dipnote, Chinese officials gave no other warning to the Consulate.  Most notably, on March 2, the Guangdong Public Health Department told a visiting U.S. delegation of military health experts from the U.S. Pacific Command that*there were no cases of AI at all whether involving poultry, wild birds, or people in the province.”

Initially there were no media reports on the bird flu case from mainland sources, noted the cable.

“Throughout the ordeal, World Health Organization officials were never contacted,” the cable related.

Citing foreign media reports, the cable warned that “experts familiar with the situation in China have always maintained that there have been outbreaks of H5N1 in birds in Guangdong province as early as the first half of 2005, but Beijing has always denied this.”

The “wet market” narrative is similar to the current coronavirus outbreak. In January, China closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan where its investigators say they believe the coronavirus first emerged in a human.

There has been widespread speculation linking the initial coronavirus to outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s first laboratory to reach the highest level of standards, known as BSL-4, meaning it can conduct research on some of the most dangerous infectious agents. The lab was studying bat coronavirus. U.S. government cables leaked to the Washington Post warned of safety issues at that lab.

China has also been accused of failing to inform the international community in time about the human transmission of the current coronavirus strain.

Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow.

Joshua Klein contributed research to this article. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaKlein_

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