Canada will change its guidelines on the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine and recommend it be given to those over age 65, according to documents obtained by CBC News and sources with direct knowledge of the guidelines.
But the NACI recommendations were based largely on AstraZeneca-Oxford’s clinical trial data and didn’t examine real-world evidence past Dec. 7 — months before the effectiveness of the vaccine was fully realized in other countries for older age groups.
Those recommendations led provinces to reorganize their vaccination plans for seniors and meant those aged 60-64 could receive the shots ahead of older age groups, who are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
Sources with firsthand knowledge of the new recommendations confirmed to CBC News that NACI plans to update its guidelines on the vaccine Tuesday.
Documents obtained by CBC News — marked “final” and dated Tuesday, but which may be subject to change — show the decision is based on emerging real-world data from other countries. The recommendations also state that mRNA vaccines, such as those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, will still be “prioritized” for older age groups.
“Following this careful review, NACI decided to expand recommendations for the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to include those 65 years of age and over,” the documents read.
The documents state real-world data of vaccine effectiveness — for those over 65 who received one dose of AstraZeneca’s — saw a “reduction in the risk of symptomatic disease and hospitalization” that appeared to reach a “comparable level” to those aged 18 to 64.
CBC News reached out to representatives from NACI, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.
Other countries such as France and Germany initially advised those 65 and older not to receive the shot, but overturned their decisions earlier this month after new evidence showed the vaccine significantly reduced hospitalizations in that age group.
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Despite some European countries temporarily halting use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine after 30 cases of blood clots, experts maintain it is still safe to use in Canada. 2:01
AstraZeneca-Oxford said Sunday a “careful review” of all available safety data for more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the U.K. showed “no evidence of an increased risk” of blood clots.
It’s unclear if NACI’s guidelines for the vaccine will change further in light of the blood clotting reports, but the documents make no mention of them and there is no evidence to suggest Canada will follow suit in suspending the use of the shot.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is safe and Canadians should have no concerns about receiving it.
It’s unclear how the change in recommendations will affect provincial and territorial vaccine rollout plans, given that those aged 60-64 have already started receiving shots and continue to be booked for appointments.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and medical director of infection control at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, said the vaccine has already raised concerns from the public because the clinical trials underestimated its effectiveness, did not enroll enough people over 65 and lacked key data because few participants actually got infected with COVID-19.
“People are already hesitant around this vaccine from that,” he said. “And even if you do get better data to support its use you now still have to fight against these three different streams of negativity towards this vaccine.”
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said issues with data from Scotland, regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine in older age groups, may have factored into NACI’s initial decision.
“Overall, what has happened with the AstraZeneca vaccine has been very, very unfortunate from almost the get-go,” said Stall, who is a member of NACI but does not speak on behalf of the committee. “So many things, unfortunately, went wrong along the way.”
Stall said the reported blood clotting also “reared its ugly head” at an extremely unfortunate time.
“Then of course, people see a product that I think they perceive as inferior,” he said. “Secondly, [the initial shipment] expires on April 2, so people feel like this is sort of like this second rate product that’s imminently expiring that the government is trying to get rid of.”
Stall said all of those factors combined have led to a “very, very understandable but unfortunate perception” that AstraZeneca-Oxford’s is somehow a “bad vaccine” — which simply isn’t true.
WATCH | Blood clots likely unrelated to vaccine, epidemiologist says:
People who got blood clots after taking the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine probably would have gotten them anyway, says epidemiologist and cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos. He says blood clots are a common ailment among people who are currently the focus of many vaccine programs. 4:01
“I do believe that probably when all is said and done, that the AstraZeneca vaccine is going to show similar real world efficacy in terms of preventing those outcomes we care most about, the hospitalizations and deaths, very comparably to the mRNA vaccines,” he said.
Matthew Miller, an associate professor of infectious diseases and immunology at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the emergence of real-world data allows officials to continually assess how effective the vaccine is globally.
“That data is now very strongly suggesting that the vaccine is working in those older individuals, and is particularly good at preventing severe infection and hospitalization, which are ultimately the outcomes that are most important,” said Miller, who also works with NACI.
“What we don’t want to have happen is these individuals, especially those who belong to vulnerable demographics, becoming seriously ill, hospitalized and dying. Those are the things that stretch ICU capacity and so those are the outcomes of greatest concern.”
Chagla says clear, transparent communication from politicians and public health officials is needed in order to explain to Canadians why the change was made.
“It wasn’t the fact that it was ineffective, it was the fact that there just wasn’t data — but there is now,” he said.
“There is going to be a stigma done by this but at least if people have the right information to make an educated decision and feel like their public health officials are being open and transparent with them, it at least encourages people to make the decision that they need to.”
A little-known medical unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on January 17, 2020, the government confirmed in a document presented to Parliament this week.
The briefing from the medical intelligence (MEDINT) unit came 17 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.
Between December 31, 2019 and January 3, 2020, 44 patients with an unknown form of “pneumonia” were reported to the WHO by authorities in China. Thousands more such cases would follow in the days ahead.
While the minister was briefed in mid-January about the new virus, the government’s incident response group — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of cabinet ministers and other senior governmental officials — didn’t meet to discuss COVID-19 until 10 days later, on January 27.
By that date, 82 people had died and more than 2,800 cases had been confirmed in mainland China. More cases were being reported throughout the rest of Asia and around the world.
In response to an order paper question from Conservative MP James Bezan, the Department of National Defence confirmed that the medical intelligence unit shared its briefing documents about COVID-19 widely with other government departments and agencies.
“All relevant information and analysis was briefed to senior officials in a timely manner … The minister of National Defence receives regular briefings to ensure the safety and security of Canadians as well as Canadian Armed Forces members at home and abroad,” DND said in its response to Bezan.
While the actual contents of that military intelligence briefing are unknown, it is clear that the machinery of government was aware of COVID-19 and its spread well before the Public Health Agency of Canada coordinated an almost complete shutdown of economic and social life two months later, in mid-March.
A not-so-early warning
Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one of the country’s top intelligence experts, said the delay between the January 17 military briefing and the first meeting of the incident response group shows “there weren’t a lot of alarm bells ringing anywhere in government” in the early days of this pandemic.
Wark said the January 17 briefing to Sajjan on the threat posed by COVID-19 to Canada “wasn’t particularly early,” given China was already in the planning stages for the full lockdown of Hubei province that took place less than a week later.
By the time cabinet and officials met on January 27, Wark said, Western intelligence agencies had already known for weeks that there was a new virus ripping through Hubei province and beyond.
CBC asked Sajjan’s office about the intelligence report and the subsequent 10-day delay before an incident response group meeting on COVID-19. “We do not comment on specific intelligence reports,” a spokesperson for Sajjan said.
“Our government and the Canadian Armed Forces are committed to health and safety of Canadians. Since the start of the pandemic, we have monitored the progression of the outbreak to ensure the protection of Canadians and Members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” Floriane Bonneville said in an email statement to CBC News.
In the order paper question response, DND confirmed that Canada’s military and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) were working with Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, and with NATO and NORAD intelligence partners, to monitor the outbreak.
The U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) was following and reporting on the novel coronavirus as early as last November, with its analysts warning U.S. officials and allies of a “cataclysmic event.”
I think we have to assume that the wasted time cost Canada enormously in terms of lives and, as economists say in a bloody-minded way, treasure.– Wesley Wark
“Canada, for reasons that go unexplained, missed the opportunity to do proper risk assessments, to seize the opportunity of early warning and to get the response planning into gear,” Wark said.
“We lost a crucial period of time to take preparations before COVID-19 seriously struck in Canada. I think we have to assume that the wasted time cost Canada enormously in terms of lives and, as economists say in a bloody-minded way, treasure.”
It is not clear how, or if, the military’s January 17 intelligence briefing differed from other reports that were being prepared by the lead government agency on COVID-19, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
“There’s two ways to read it — if red flags were raised they were not red flags that were taken seriously, or there weren’t really red flags raised at that stage,” Wark said.
The PHAC was working closely with its partners at the WHO, which has since been criticized for being too closely aligned with the Communist regime in Beijing.
The Associated Press has reported, based on leaked documents, that China’s leaders sat on critical information that might have helped stave off a global pandemic.
‘Our early warning system failed’
What is known is that the contents of the January briefing to Sajjan did not lead the federal government to close borders or restrict flights — or to alter its public messaging on the risk the virus posed to Canadians.
“Thousands of travellers were streaming through Canadian airports — none of whom were quarantined — and nobody seemed to be lifting an eyebrow,” Wark said of the two-month stretch between intelligence briefing and the shutdown.
Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, said the latest details about the intelligence report amount to “just another example of how this Liberal government was slow to act” on COVID-19.
He said the incident response group should have been convened as soon as the intelligence report was prepared for Sajjan and disseminated to government departments.
“This delay and lack of leadership has put more Canadians at risk and has had real consequences for the Canadian economy,” Bezan said.
As previously reported by CBC, based on documents presented at the House of Commons health committee, much of the government’s focus in the early days of the pandemic was on repatriating Canadians from Hubei province and cruise ships while international borders remained open with minimal screening.
“The reality is we missed the significance of COVID-19. Our early warning system failed and our risk assessments were totally wrong and we’ve got to fix that as soon as possible,” Wark said.
As late as March 10, a department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period was saying that — with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point (even though publicly available numbers already had climbed higher) — “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.”
The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”
A month later, Canada would have more than 21,000 cases, many of them linked to China, Europe and U.S. travel.
As government documents show, as of Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as “very high” in China and “high at the global level.”
It would be weeks before Canadian public health officials changed their risk assessment.
“There’s a lot of explaining that I think the Canadian government needs to do as to why it held on to a low risk judgment for so long until suddenly, on a Sunday in mid-March, we got all these cascading, desperate measures and societal restrictions,” Wark said.
Trudeau and other members of his cabinet have been reluctant to publicly look back at what could have been done to better prepare Canada for COVID-19 with the country still in the grips of a pandemic.
Since mid-March, much of the government’s focus has been on mitigating the spread of the virus and supporting Canadians through unprecedented job losses and economic decline.
“As we look back, of course there’s going to be things we said, ‘Oh, we might have said this differently or that differently,'” Trudeau said in April when asked about the speed of the government’s response.
Throughout January, the World Health Organization publicly praised China for what it called a speedy response to the new coronavirus. It repeatedly thanked the Chinese government for sharing the genetic map of the virus “immediately” and said its work and commitment to transparency were “very impressive, and beyond words.”
But behind the scenes, it was a much different story, one of significant delays by China and considerable frustration among WHO officials over not getting the information they needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, The Associated Press has found.
Despite WHO’s praise, China in fact sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information. Tight controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were to blame, according to dozens of interviews and internal documents.
Chinese government labs only released the genome after another lab published it ahead of authorities on a virologist website on Jan. 11. Even then, China stalled for at least two more weeks on providing WHO with detailed data on patients and cases, according to recordings of internal meetings held by the UN health agency through January — all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.
Recordings obtained by the AP suggest WHO officials were lauding China in public because they wanted to coax more information out of the government. Privately, they complained in meetings the week of Jan. 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.
“We’re going on very minimal information,” said U.S. epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, now WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, in one internal meeting. “It’s clearly not enough for you to do proper planning.”
“We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,” said WHO’s top official in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, referring to the state-owned China Central Television, in another meeting.
WHO facing questions about handling of pandemic
The virus has now infected over six million people worldwide and killed more than 376,000, according to a database from Johns Hopkins University that tracks recorded cases.
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The story behind the early response to the virus comes at a time when the UN health agency is under scrutiny and has agreed to an independent probe of how the pandemic was handled globally.
After repeatedly praising the Chinese response early on, U.S. President Donald Trump has blasted WHO in recent weeks for allegedly colluding with China to hide the extent of the crisis. He cut ties with the organization on Friday, jeopardizing the approximately $ 450 million the U.S. gives every year as WHO’s biggest single donor.
In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to pitch in $ 2 billion over the next two years to fight the coronavirus, saying China has always provided information to WHO and the world “in a most timely fashion.”
The new information does not support the narrative of either the U.S. or China but instead portrays an agency now stuck in the middle that was urgently trying to solicit more data despite limits to its own authority.
Although international law obliges countries to report information to WHO that could have an impact on public health, the UN agency has no enforcement powers and cannot independently investigate epidemics within countries. Instead, it must rely on the co-operation of member states.
The recordings suggest that rather than colluding with China, as Trump declared, WHO was kept in the dark as China gave it the minimal information required by law. However, the agency did try to portray China in the best light, likely as a means to secure more information. And it appears WHO experts genuinely thought Chinese scientists had done “a very good job” in detecting and decoding the virus, despite the lack of transparency from Chinese officials.
WHO staffers debated how to press China for gene sequences and detailed patient data without angering authorities, and worried about losing access and getting Chinese scientists into trouble. Under international law, WHO is required to quickly share information and alerts with member countries about an evolving crisis.
Galea noted WHO could not indulge China’s wish to sign off on information before telling other countries because “that is not respectful of our responsibilities.”
In the second week of January, WHO’s chief of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, told colleagues it was time to “shift gears” and apply more pressure on China, fearing a repeat of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which started in China in 2002 and killed nearly 800 people worldwide.
“This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on,” he said. “WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China.”
Ryan said the best way to “protect China” was for WHO to do its own independent analysis with data from the Chinese government, because otherwise the spread of the virus between people would be in question and “other countries will take action accordingly.” Ryan also noted that China was not co-operating in the same way some other countries had in the past.
“This would not happen in Congo and did not happen in Congo and other places,” he said, probably referring to the Ebola outbreak that began there in 2018. “We need to see the data … It’s absolutely important at this point.”
The delay in the release of the genome stalled the recognition of its spread to other countries, along with the global development of tests, drugs and vaccines. The lack of detailed patient data also made it harder to determine how quickly the virus was spreading — a critical question in stopping it.
Between the day the full genome was first decoded by a government lab on Jan. 2 and the day WHO declared a global emergency on Jan. 30, the outbreak spread by a factor of 100 to 200 times, according to retrospective infection data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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“It’s obvious that we could have saved more lives and avoided many, many deaths if China and the WHO had acted faster,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
However, Mokdad and other experts also noted that if WHO had been more confrontational with China, it could have triggered a far worse situation of not getting any information at all.
If WHO had pushed too hard, it could even have been kicked out of China, said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health professor at the University of Sydney. But he added that a delay of just a few days in releasing genetic sequences can be critical in an outbreak. And he noted that as Beijing’s lack of transparency becomes even clearer, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s continued defense of China is problematic.
“It’s definitely damaged WHO’s credibility,” said Kamradt-Scott. “Did he go too far? I think the evidence on that is clear… it has led to so many questions about the relationship between China and WHO. It is perhaps a cautionary tale.”
WHO and its officials named in this story declined to answer questions asked by The Associated Press without audio or written transcripts of the recorded meetings, which the AP was unable to supply to protect its sources.
“Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organization’s rules and regulations to support and share information with all Member States equally, and engage in frank and forthright conversations with governments at all levels,” a WHO statement said.
China’s National Health Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no comment. But in the past few months, China has repeatedly defended its actions, and many other countries — including the U.S. — have responded to the virus with even longer delays of weeks and even months.
“Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have been continuously sharing information on the epidemic with the WHO and the international community in an open, transparent and responsible manner,” said Liu Mingzhu, an official with the National Health Commission’s International Department, at a press conference on May 15.
How did events unfold?
The race to find the genetic map of the virus started in late December, according to the AP’s reporting. That’s when doctors in Wuhan noticed mysterious clusters of patients with fevers and breathing problems who weren’t improving with standard flu treatment. Seeking answers, they sent test samples from patients to commercial labs.
By Dec. 27, one lab, Vision Medicals, had pieced together most of the genome of a new coronavirus with striking similarities to SARS. Vision Medicals shared its data with Wuhan officials and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, as first reported by Chinese finance publication Caixin and independently confirmed by the AP.
On Dec. 30, Wuhan health officials issued internal notices warning of the unusual pneumonia, which leaked on social media. That evening, Shi Zhengli, a coronavirus expert at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who is famous for having traced the SARS virus to a bat cave, was alerted to the new disease, according to an interview with Scientific American. Shi took the first train from a conference in Shanghai back to Wuhan.
The next day, Chinese CDC director Gao Fu dispatched a team of experts to Wuhan. Also on Dec. 31, WHO first learned about the cases from an open-source platform that scouts for intelligence on outbreaks, emergencies chief Ryan has said.
WHO officially requested more information on Jan. 1. Under international law, members have 24 to 48 hours to respond, and China reported two days later that there were 44 cases and no deaths.
By Jan. 2, Shi had decoded the entire genome of the virus, according to a notice later posted on her institute’s website.
Scientists agree that Chinese scientists detected and sequenced the then-unknown pathogen with astonishing speed, in a testimony to China’s vastly improved technical capabilities since SARS, during which a WHO-led group of scientists took months to identify the virus. This time, Chinese virologists proved within days that it was a never-before-seen coronavirus. Tedros would later say Beijing set “a new standard for outbreak response.”
But when it came to sharing the information with the world, things began to go awry.
On Jan. 3, the National Health Commission issued a confidential notice ordering labs with the virus to either destroy their samples or send them to designated institutes for safekeeping. The notice, first reported by Caixin and seen by the AP, forbade labs from publishing information about the virus without government authorization. The order barred Shi’s lab from publishing the genetic sequence or warning of the potential danger.
Chinese law states that research institutes cannot conduct experiments on potentially dangerous new viruses without approval from top health authorities. Although the law is intended to keep experiments safe, it gives top health officials wide-ranging powers over what lower-level labs can or cannot do.
“If the virologist community had operated with more autonomy … the public would have been informed of the lethal risk of the new virus much earlier,” said Edward Gu, a professor at Zhejiang University, and Li Lantian, a PhD student at Northwestern University, in a paper published in March analyzing the outbreak.
Commission officials later repeated that they were trying to ensure lab safety, and had tasked four separate government labs with identifying the genome at the same time to get accurate, consistent results.
Virus independently sequenced by Chinese CDC
By Jan. 3, the Chinese CDC had independently sequenced the virus, according to internal data seen by the Associated Press. By just after midnight on Jan. 5, a third designated government lab, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, had decoded the sequence and submitted a report.
Yet even with full sequences decoded by three state labs independently, Chinese health officials remained silent. The WHO reported on Twitter that investigations were underway into an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases with no deaths in Wuhan, and said it would share “more details as we have them.”
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Meanwhile, at the Chinese CDC, gaps in coronavirus expertise proved a problem.
For nearly two weeks, Wuhan reported no new infections, as officials censored doctors who warned of suspicious cases. Meanwhile, researchers found the new coronavirus used a distinct spike in protein to bind itself to human cells. The unusual protein and the lack of new cases lulled some Chinese CDC researchers into thinking the virus didn’t easily spread between humans — like the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to an employee who declined to be identified out of fear of retribution.
Li, the coronavirus expert, said he immediately suspected the pathogen was infectious when he spotted a leaked copy of a sequencing report in a group chat on a SARS-like coronavirus. But the Chinese CDC team that sequenced the virus lacked specialists in the molecular structure of coronaviruses and failed to consult with outside scientists, Li said.
Media outlets like the New York Times have reported that Chinese health authorities rebuffed offers of assistance from foreign experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Jan. 5, the Shanghai Public Clinical Health Center, led by famed virologist Zhang Yongzhen, was the latest to sequence the virus. He submitted it to the GenBank database, where it sat awaiting review, and notified the National Health Commission. He warned them that the new virus was similar to SARS and likely infectious.
“It should be contagious through respiratory passages,” the centre said in an internal notice seen by the AP. “We recommend taking preventative measures in public areas.”
On the same day, WHO said that based on preliminary information from China, there was no evidence of significant transmission between humans, and did not recommend any specific measures for travellers.
Emergency level raised
The next day, the Chinese CDC raised its emergency level to the second highest. Staffers proceeded to isolate the virus, draft lab testing guidelines and design test kits. But the agency did not have the authority to issue public warnings, and the heightened emergency level was kept secret even from many of its own staff.
By Jan. 7, another team at Wuhan University had sequenced the pathogen and found it matched Shi’s, making Shi certain they had identified a novel coronavirus. But Chinese CDC experts said they didn’t trust Shi’s findings and needed to verify her data before she could publish, according to three people familiar with the matter. Both the National Health Commission and the Ministry of Science and Technology, which oversees Shi’s lab, declined to make Shi available for an interview.
A major factor behind the gag order, some say, was that Chinese CDC researchers wanted to publish their papers first. “They wanted to take all the credit,” said Li Yize, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Internally, the leadership of the Chinese CDC is plagued with fierce competition, six people familiar with the system explained. They said the agency has long promoted staff based on how many papers they can publish in prestigious journals, making scientists reluctant to share data.
As the days went by, even some of the Chinese CDC’s own staff began to wonder why it was taking so long for authorities to identify the pathogen.
“We were getting suspicious, since within one or two days you would get a sequencing result,” a lab technician said, declining to be identified for fear of retribution.
WSJ reports scientists have identified new virus
On Jan. 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that scientists had identified a new coronavirus in samples from pneumonia patients in Wuhan, pre-empting and embarrassing Chinese officials. The lab technician told the AP they first learned about the discovery of the virus from the Journal.
The article also embarrassed WHO officials. Dr. Tom Grein, chief of WHO’s acute events management team, said the agency looked “doubly, incredibly stupid.” Van Kerkhove, the American expert, acknowledged WHO was “already late” in announcing the new virus and told colleagues that it was critical to push China.
Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, was also upset at the dearth of information.
“The fact is, we’re two to three weeks into an event, we don’t have a laboratory diagnosis, we don’t have an age, sex or geographic distribution, we don’t have an epi curve,” he complained, referring to the standard graphic of outbreaks scientists use to show how an epidemic is progressing.
After the article, state media officially announced the discovery of the new coronavirus. But even then, Chinese health authorities did not release the genome, diagnostic tests or detailed patient data that could hint at how infectious the disease was.
By that time, suspicious cases were already appearing across the region.
On Jan. 8, Thai airport officers pulled aside a woman from Wuhan with a runny nose, sore throat and high temperature. Chulalongkorn University professor Supaporn Wacharapluesadee’s team found the woman was infected with a new coronavirus, much like what Chinese officials had described. Supaporn partially figured out the genetic sequence by Jan. 9, reported it to the Thai government and spent the next day searching for matching sequences.
But because Chinese authorities hadn’t published any sequences, she found nothing. She could not prove the Thai virus was the same pathogen sickening people in Wuhan.
“It was kind of wait and see, when China will release the data, then we can compare,” said Supaporn.
On Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man with the virus passed away in Wuhan — the first known death. The death wasn’t made public until Jan. 11.
WHO officials complained in internal meetings that they were making repeated requests for more data, especially to find out if the virus could spread efficiently between humans, but to no avail.
“We have informally and formally been requesting more epidemiological information,” WHO’s China representative Galea said. “But when asked for specifics, we could get nothing.”
Emergencies chief Ryan grumbled that since China was providing the minimal information required by international law, there was little WHO could do. But he also noted that last September, WHO had issued an unusual public rebuke of Tanzania for not providing enough details about a worrisome Ebola outbreak.
“We have to be consistent,” Ryan said. “The danger now is that despite our good intent … especially if something does happen, there will be a lot of finger-pointing at WHO.”
Ryan noted that China could make a “huge contribution” to the world by sharing the genetic material immediately, because otherwise “other countries will have to reinvent the wheel over the coming days.”
On Jan. 11, a team led by Zhang, from the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, finally published a sequence on Virological.org, used by researchers to swap tips on pathogens. The move angered Chinese CDC officials, three people familiar with the matter said, and the next day, his laboratory was temporarily shuttered by health authorities.
Zhang referred a request for comment to the Chinese CDC. The National Health Commission, which oversees the Chinese CDC, declined multiple times to make its officials available for interviews and did not answer questions about Zhang.
Supaporn compared her sequence with Zhang’s and found it was a 100 per cent match, confirming that the Thai patient was ill with the same virus detected in Wuhan. Another Thai lab got the same results. That day, Thailand informed the WHO, said Tanarak Plipat, deputy director-general of the Department of Disease Control at Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health.
After Zhang released the genome, the Chinese CDC, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences raced to publish their sequences, working overnight to review them, gather patient data and send them to the National Health Commission for approval, according to documentation obtained by the AP.
On Jan. 12, the three labs together finally published the sequences on GISAID, a platform for scientists to share genomic data.
By then, more than two weeks had passed since Vision Medicals decoded a partial sequence, and more than a week since the three government labs had all obtained full sequences. Around 600 people were infected in that week, a roughly three-fold increase.
Some scientists say the wait was not unreasonable considering the difficulties in sequencing unknown pathogens, given accuracy is as important as speed. They point to the SARS outbreak in 2003, when some Chinese scientists initially — and wrongly — believed the source of the epidemic was chlamydia.
“The pressure is intense in an outbreak to make sure you’re right,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealthAlliance in New York. “It’s actually worse to go out to go to the public with a story that’s wrong, because the public completely lose confidence in the public health response.”
Still, others quietly question what happened behind the scenes.
Infectious diseases expert John Mackenzie, who served on a WHO emergency committee during the outbreak, praised the speed of Chinese researchers in sequencing the virus. But he said once central authorities got involved, detailed data trickled to a crawl.
“There certainly was a kind of blank period,” Mackenzie said. “There had to be human-to-human transmission. You know, it’s staring at you in the face. I would have thought they would have been much more open at that stage.”
On Jan. 13, WHO announced that Thailand had a confirmed case of the virus, jolting Chinese officials.
The next day, in a confidential teleconference, China’s top health official ordered the country to prepare for a pandemic, calling the outbreak the “most severe challenge since SARS in 2003,” as the AP previously reported. Chinese CDC staff across the country began screening, isolating and testing for cases, turning up hundreds across the country.
Yet even as the Chinese CDC internally declared a level one emergency, the highest level possible, Chinese officials still said the chance of sustained transmission between humans was low.
Questions around human-to-human transmission
WHO went back and forth. Van Kerkhove said in a press briefing that “it is certainly possible there is limited human-to-human transmission.” But hours later, WHO seemed to backtrack, tweeting that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” — a statement that later became fodder for critics.
A high-ranking official in WHO’s Asia office, Dr. Liu Yunguo, who attended medical school in Wuhan, flew to Beijing to make direct, informal contacts with Chinese officials, recordings show. Liu’s former classmate, a Wuhan doctor, had alerted him that pneumonia patients were flooding the city’s hospitals, and Liu pushed for more experts to visit Wuhan, according to a public health expert familiar with the matter.
On Jan. 20, the leader of an expert team returning from Wuhan, renowned government infectious diseases doctor Zhong Nanshan, declared publicly for the first time that the new virus was spreading between people. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the “timely publication of epidemic information and deepening of international co-operation.”
Despite that directive, WHO staff still struggled to obtain enough detailed patient data from China about the rapidly evolving outbreak. That same day, the UN health agency dispatched a small team to Wuhan for two days, including Galea, the WHO representative in China.
Cluster of cases in doctors, nurses
They were told about a worrying cluster of cases among more than a dozen doctors and nurses. But they did not have “transmission trees” detailing how the cases were connected or a full understanding of how widely the virus was spreading and who was at risk.
In an internal meeting, Galea said their Chinese counterparts were “talking openly and consistently” about human-to-human transmission. Galea reported to colleagues in Geneva and Manila that China’s key request to WHO was for help “in communicating this to the public, without causing panic.”
On Jan. 22, WHO convened an independent committee to determine whether to declare a global health emergency. After two inconclusive meetings where experts were split, they decided against it — even as Chinese officials ordered Wuhan sealed in the biggest quarantine in history. The next day, WHO chief Tedros publicly described the spread of the new coronavirus in China as “limited.”
For days, China didn’t release much detailed data, even as its case count exploded. Beijing city officials were alarmed enough to consider locking down the capital, according to a medical expert with direct knowledge of the matter.
On Jan. 28, Tedros and top experts, including Ryan, made an extraordinary trip to Beijing to meet President Xi and other senior Chinese officials. It is highly unusual for WHO’s director-general to directly intervene in the practicalities of outbreak investigations. Tedros’s staffers had prepared a list of requests for information.
“It could all happen and the floodgates open, or there’s no communication,” Grein said in an internal meeting while his boss was in Beijing. “We’ll see.”
At the end of Tedros’s trip, WHO announced China had agreed to accept an international team of experts. In a press briefing on Jan. 29, Tedros heaped praise on China, calling its level of commitment “incredible.”
The next day, WHO finally declared an international health emergency. Once again, Tedros thanked China, saying nothing about the earlier lack of co-operation.
“We should have actually expressed our respect and gratitude to China for what it’s doing,” Tedros said. “It has already done incredible things to limit the transmission of the virus to other countries.”
U.S. officials believe China covered up the extent of the coronavirus outbreak — and how contagious the disease is — to stock up on medical supplies needed to respond to it, intelligence documents show.
Chinese leaders “intentionally concealed the severity” of the pandemic from the world in early January, according to a four-page Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1 and obtained by The Associated Press. The revelation comes as the Trump administration has intensified its criticism of China, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying Sunday China was responsible for the spread of the disease and must be held accountable.
The sharper rhetoric coincides with administration critics saying the government’s response to the virus was slow and inadequate. President Donald Trump’s political opponents have accused him of lashing out at China, a geopolitical foe but critical U.S. trade partner, in an attempt to deflect criticism at home.
Not classified but marked “for official use only,” the analysis states that, while downplaying the severity of the coronavirus, China increased imports and decreased exports of medical supplies. It attempted to cover up doing so by “denying there were export restrictions and obfuscating and delaying provision of its trade data,” the analysis states.
‘A history of infecting the world’
The report also says China held off informing the World Health Organization that the coronavirus “was a contagion” for much of January so it could order medical supplies from abroad — and that its imports of face masks and surgical gowns and gloves increased sharply.
Those conclusions are based on the 95 per cent probability that China’s changes in imports and export behaviour were not within normal range, according to the report.
Trump has speculated that China could have unleashed the coronavirus due to some kind of horrible “mistake.” His intelligence agencies say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab.
Speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Pompeo said he had no reason to believe that the virus was deliberately spread. But he said: “Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.”
“These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab. And so, while the intelligence community continues to do its work — they should continue to do that, and verify so that we are certain — I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”
Chinese government bears ‘enormous responsibility’: Cruz
The secretary of state appeared to be referring to previous outbreaks of respiratory viruses, like SARS, which started in China. His remark may be seen as offensive in China. Still, Pompeo repeated the same assertion virtually word for word hours later, via a tweet Sunday afternoon.
Speaking Sunday on Fox News Channel’s Sunday Morning Futures, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas echoed that sentiment, saying he believes China “is the most significant geopolitical threat to the United States for the next century.”
“The communist government in China bears enormous responsibility, enormous direct culpability for this pandemic. We know they covered it up,” Cruz said.
“Had they behaved responsibly and sent in health professionals and quarantined those infected, there’s a real possibility this could have been a regional outbreak, and not a global pandemic. And the hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide are in a very real sense the direct responsibility of the communist Chinese government’s lies.”
Briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats for federal ministers show just how quickly the COVID-19 situation evolved in Canada — with public health officials stating the risk of transmission in Canada was low right up until early March, only to recommend an ordered shutdown of economic life in this country some two weeks later.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Thursday that it could be as long as a year before normal life returns in Canada — a dramatic change in messaging, considering how Public Health Agency of Canada officials were advising policymakers less than two months ago that COVID-19 risks were low in this country, and that mandatory quarantines for returning travellers would be too difficult to enforce.
A March 10 department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period said that, with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point, “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.” The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”
A month later, Canada has more than 21,000 cases.
As the documents show, as early as Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as “very high” in China and “high at the global level.”
The tranche of documents, prepared by various government departments and tabled with the Commons Health committee late Wednesday, include many of the early planning memos that informed the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in January and February.
They show that while the government was seized with repatriating Canadians from China’s Hubei province and various cruise ships during that time, there was little talk of a possible pandemic.
Public health officials questioned the accuracy of media reports out of the city of Wuhan, in Hubei, suggesting that the virus was spreading through person-to-person contact.
“Based on the latest information that we have, there is no clear evidence that the virus is easily transmitted between people,” a Jan. 19 briefing note prepared for Hajdu said.
The documents also reveal that the government was reluctant to strictly police travellers arriving from Hubei, the region of China where the novel coronavirus is thought to have originated.
‘Next to impossible’ to stop COVID-19: minister
According to talking points prepared for a Jan. 30 call with her provincial and territorial counterparts, Hajdu said preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “next to impossible” because of the nature of global travel.
“What really counts is limiting its impact and controlling its spread once it gets here,” the talking point reads.
Three days later, the U.S. barred all non-citizens coming from China from entering the country.
While there were information booths at major Canadian airports starting on January 21, the decision to collect personal contact information from inbound Hubei travellers was only made on Feb. 19 — information that could then be used by public health officials to follow up with people if an outbreak emerged.
The government relied on individuals to self-report to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms, long after temperature monitoring measures were commonplace at airports in Asia.
Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 18, 58,000 travellers arrived in Canada from China — 2,030 of them were coming from Hubei province.
Only 68 were pulled aside for further assessment by a quarantine officer and only three passengers were actually flagged for a medical exam — the other 65 passengers were sent away with a pamphlet.
It’s impossible to know how many pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic passengers were released into the general Canadian population.
Bureaucrats warn against mandatory quarantines
On Feb. 7, the government started recommending that inbound Hubei passengers start to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days to prevent transmission.
In an undated memo to Hajdu sent in mid-February, department officials warned that Canadians may question the effectiveness of “voluntary” self-isolation measures for these travellers.
But the memo says “there is no ability to enforce or ensure compliance” with a mandatory isolation order without the use of the Quarantine Act — a measure the government would end up enacting weeks later.
The memo said it was best to leave all self-isolation measures as voluntary to ensure there is “less pressure on public health resources.”
The memo said public health officials didn’t have the capacity required to quarantine passengers from China; 20,000 such travellers were arriving in Canada each week at the time.
The Public Health Agency scrubbed any references to China in pamphlets disseminated to returning travelers starting on Feb. 24, after it was clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in countries like Iran and Italy.
I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic.– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Calls between Hajdu and her provincial and territorial counterparts later in February focused on quarantine facilities for returning Hubei and cruise ship travellers in Trenton and Belleville, but said little about how the various jurisdictions would respond if COVID-19 escalated.
According to briefing notes for a Feb. 10 call, Hajdu said that while the country was in a “containment phase, we cannot ignore what comes next.”
The note states that the Public Health Agency of Canada was “doing advanced thinking and scenario analysis, including a pandemic scenario,” but it’s not clear if those scenarios were actually discussed with provinces and territories on that call.
Health Canada expected Hajdu would be pressed by the provinces about the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the call. The department told her then there were ongoing “attempts” to secure devices like N95 and surgical masks for the national stockpile but “deliveries were staggered by industry due to mounting market pressures.”
It said it had procured only a “modest” amount of the masks — items that would be badly needed a month later.
By Feb. 26, when there were 78,000 COVID-19 cases in mainland China, public health officials continued to counsel Hajdu that “the public health risk within Canada remains low.” A month later, there would be 1,000 cases in Ontario alone.
Even after the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in Canada started to rise by mid-February, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg did very few tests, with most of them reserved for travellers from China. It is now understood there was widespread transmission of the disease in Europe and in some U.S. hotspots like New York by this time.
By Feb. 17, the national lab had run only 461 tests — a marginal increase from the 367 tests run the week before.
By Feb. 25, Ontario and B.C. had provincial labs ready to test but the other provinces were still relying on sending samples to Winnipeg — a cumbersome process that made it difficult to identify and isolate cases in the other provinces early on.
Countries ‘caught off guard’: Trudeau
When asked Thursday what went wrong in the government’s COVID-19 planning, Trudeau said there will be time for reflection at a later date. He said he was confident the government made the “best decisions” with “the information we have.”
“I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic,” he said. “The challenges we faced in terms of getting Canadians protected are echoed in challenges faced around the world.
Watch: Trudeau warns Canadians need to remain vigilant
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said normal life for Canadians will not return until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed 2:32
“I think Canada has done a good job of keeping on a path that is going to minimize as much as possible the reality we’re in right now. As we look back at the end of this, I’m sure people will say, ‘You could have done this a few days before.'”
A trove of secret documents has revealed China’s efforts to track members of its Uighur population living around the world, as well as the government’s attempts to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship upon their return to China, including Canadians.
The files have been verified by intelligence experts, translated and given to CBC News and other international media partners by the ICIJ in an effort to raise awareness of China’s treatment of Uighurs.
Uighurs are a Muslim minority group of Turkic origin who are native to the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, near the Kazakhstan border. The China Cables show a concerted effort to exert control over Uighurs across the globe, including in Canada.
“I think most of the Uighur people who study here or are living here feel the pressure from the Chinese government,” one Uighur student living in Canada told CBC News.
“[China is] afraid that Uighurs living abroad will tell the facts about what is happening in Xinjiang to the foreign media or foreign peoples.”
The student agreed to speak with CBC on condition that his identity remained confidential and will be referred to as Abraham for the purpose of this story.
The student said the government has threatened his parents and used them as leverage in order to monitor his activity in Canada.
“They control everything in China,” he said. “They can find out anything.”
Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, said the documents “make it clear that what is underway is a sinister program of incarceration on a massive scale that the world has hardly seen anywhere in decades.”
What the documents reveal
Uighurs have long been monitored by the Chinese state because of their religious beliefs and ethnicity. But recent investigations by journalists and human rights organizations suggest a new level of persecution.
During a United Nations summit this summer, a Chinese foreign minister characterized the camps as “education and training centres” that “help the people free themselves from terrorism and extremism and acquire useful skills.”
One of the newly obtained documents, entitled “Autonomous Regional Party Committee Command for Cracking Down and Assaulting on the Front Lines” and dated June 16, 2017, showed that China was closely monitoring 75 of the Uighurs who had obtained foreign citizenship and were believed to be in China at the time.
“It cannot be ruled out that they are still active in the country,” the document said. “Personal identification verification should be inspected one by one.”
The document also broke them down by citizenship: “26 are Turkish, 23 are Australian, three are American, five are Swedish, two from New Zealand, one from the Netherlands, three from Uzbekistan, two from the United Kingdom, five are Canadian, three are Finnish, one is French and one is from Kyrgyzstan.”
Amnesty International’s Neve said the newly acquired documents “refute the picture that has been put forward by the Chinese government, of [the internment camps] being the benign educational vocational experience for the Uighur population.”
The documents also instruct officials to deport Uighurs from China who had obtained citizenship in another country and given up their Chinese citizenship. Those who hadn’t and for whom “suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out,” the documents suggest, should “be placed into concentrated education and training.”
Similar language shows up in another section, which reveals that China’s embassies and consulates were tracking 4,341 people from Xinjiang who had spent time abroad and had applied for visas and directed officials to “analyze” them — “especially the 1,707 people who have not yet left the country.”
“For those still outside the country for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out … ensure that they are arrested the moment they cross the border,” the document stated. “For those who have entered the country and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should first be placed into concentrated education and training for examination.”
The ICIJ sent a physical and electronic copy of the China Cables to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and sought comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing. ICIJ did not receive a response in either case.
The only official to respond to ICIJ partners about the documents was Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K., who called the reporting “pure fabrication.”
Is Canada safe for Uighurs?
Abraham said Chinese authorities pressured him to send home his Canadian identification, address, school documents and even personal health information, but he doesn’t know why.
“I sent it to them because they said they require this information,” he said.
He said that if he doesn’t comply with Chinese authorities’ demands, his family in Xinjiang will be placed in the camps.
Abraham said he knows other students in Canada who have relatives in the camps, and that many of these students are scared to speak out.
WATCH | ‘Then she disappeared’: Canadian Uighur Mehmet Tohtidescribes how his mother was taken from her home by what he suspects were Chinese security police:
Mehmet Tohti, founder of the Canadian Uighur Society, describes the last time he was able to talk to his mother in China. 1:44
Mehmet Tohti has been an outspoken activist for Uighur rights in Toronto for years and knows the Chinese government’s control tactics well.
“It is intimidation. It is harassment. It is threatening,” he said, describing a strategy of “hijacking your father, mother, loved ones back home … and forcing you to be silent.” Tohti said Uighur activists feel pressure from the Chinese government here.
Turdush said she was filmed, shouted at and called a “separatist” at the event on campus. McMaster’s student union ultimately stripped a Chinese students club of its status over its alleged links to the Chinese government.
China using families as leverage
A Uighur refugee who sought asylum in Canada after living in exile in Turkey for two years said her family was pressured by the Chinese government to encourage her return to Xinjiang.
The last time Dilnur — who asked CBC to withhold her last name — spoke with her family by phone was in April 2017. She fears they may have been forcibly taken to the camps.
“My family members didn’t know I came to Canada,” she said. “They think I still live in Turkey.”
When asked why she felt the need to hide her identity in speaking with CBC, Dilnur paused, then translated a word on her phone from Uighur to English: “Danger.”
She said she is “afraid” and believes her husband and children are in danger. Dilnur said that if Uighurs return to their home country, “Chinese government, I think, [will] kill us.”
Neve said the Chinese government is keeping independent international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations out of the internment camps.
“These kinds of campaigns of intimidation and massive human rights violations always have many motivations on the government’s part, but one is to sow fear and intimidation and cast a chill so that people will be terrified of protesting, they will be unwilling to speak out,” Neve said.
The majority of people in China belong to the Han ethnic group. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the reason the state targets Uighurs is because of a desire to make the Xinjiang region more Chinese in culture, language and population.
“The ultimate [aim] is to make sure that there are more Han Chinese in any particular region [of China] than there are members of any local ethnic group,” he said.
Mulroney said he’s not surprised by the reports of Chinese government surveillance of Uighurs in Canada.
“China has been doing that for some time,” he said. “It employs students. It employs people in the community to keep an eye out for people that the state considers troublemakers.”
Mulroney said some Uighurs in China are forced to “voluntarily” exile themselves from their relatives in Canada in an attempt to protect them.
“There are some very brave Uighurs who continue to speak up and to tell their story, but a lot of others, I think, would be looking to the government of Canada for a degree of protection and support,” he said.
“Until countries begin to show more backbone, and begin to push back, China will continue to do things like this.”
Leaked secret documents are revealing the systematic scope of mass detention of ethnic minorities in re-education camps in northwestern China.
From 24-hour surveillance, forced ideological lessons and psychological modification, official Communist Party documents from 2017 describe the imprisonment and indoctrination of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
“In my opinion, what we are looking at in Xinjiang is probably the largest internment of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust,” said Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on the Uighur crisis and senior fellow in China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
One of the documents, a 25-point memo approved by Xinjiang’s top security official, lays out how best to operate the camps, referred to as “vocational skills education and training centres,” as part of the “struggle to fight against terrorism and maintain stability.”
China has blamed extremist and separatist groups for many violent domestic attacks in the last two decades. Because of the lack of independent journalism in the country, these attacks and who carried them out have been difficult to verify. It has led to periodic crackdowns in the region, which critics say have culminated in these internment camps.
Zenz estimates as many as 1.8 million Uighurs are or have been in them over the last three years.
“The significance [of the documents] is that we have an unprecedented insight into what the Chinese government is really doing,” Zenz said, “and it gives unprecedented insight also into the priorities.”
“And the No.1 priority, besides keeping it secret, is to keep people from escaping.”
The first and second points in the memo instruct camp staff to “prevent escape” and say that police “must never allow escapes.”
Staff are to “strictly manage door locks and keys” and “strictly manage and control student activities to prevent escapes during class, eating periods, toilet breaks, bath time, medical treatment, family visits, etc.”
The “centres” are instructed to surveil every part of the lives of the “students.” Other points in the memo suggest rolling out “secret forces and [bringing] information officers into play to prevent people from joining forces to cause trouble.”
The expectation at any of these camps is “full video surveillance coverage of dormitories” and “a 24-hour duty shift system.”
Evidence from above
The rigid security details found in the memo are echoed in part by what some observers have seen from satellite imagery.
“It’s not a school,” said Shawn Zhang, a UBC law school graduate in Vancouver who uses past and present imagery to track buildings he thinks are Chinese re-education camps.
“The Chinese government claims it is a school,” Zhang said while looking at images of one of the first camps he suspected, “But from satellite [images], we can see there is chain-link fencing, maybe topped with razor wire fences. And I can also see the watchtowers, very prison-style watchtowers. It could never happen in real vocational schools.”
Zhang’s amateur research had him poring over images of cities in Xinjiang looking for signs of construction, allowing him to track changes over time. He has catalogued his findings online in blog posts.
‘Repentance and confession’
Beyond security, the operational memo also dictates educational expectations of detainees. The “centres” must “adhere to the daily concentrated study of the national language [Mandarin], law and skills.”
All lessons are taught in Mandarin and it “should be gradually used in daily life to communicate,” effectively banning the use of any Uighur language. China has been criticized by human rights groups and the U.S. State Department for trying to erase any ethnic identity in these camps other than Han Chinese.
Beyond lessons, a “behaviour management” section sets a “fixed bed position, fixed [line] position, fixed classroom seat and fixed station of work,” all of which are “strictly forbidden” to be changed.
The “ideological education” section instructs staff to “bring psychological correction education into play” and “promote the repentance and confession of the students for them to understand deeply the illegal, criminal and dangerous nature of their past behaviour.”
The crime of being Muslim
Olsi Jazexhi, an Albanian-Canadian historian at the University of Durres and Elbasan, found out firsthand what “past behaviour” meant.
“They were not extremists. They were not terrorists,” said Jazexhi, who studies the history of Islam. “They were normal people who believed in their God and believed in their identity as being Uighurs.”
WATCH | ‘Propaganda tour’ of China camp shocks Albanian-Canadian historian Olsi Jazexhi:
Albanian-Canadian historian Olsi Jazexhi describes a propaganda tour of what the Chinese government calls a ‘vocational education training centre’ in Xinjiang, China, and how shocked he was at the ‘crimes’ people were accused of. 1:42
Jazexhi, initially a skeptic of any mistreatment — he thought claims were Western exaggeration — decided to go to see for himself. He arranged to join what he now calls a “propaganda tour” of these camps along with foreign journalists in August.
When he got to Xinjiang, Jazexhi said, he wasn’t interested in what his government minders wanted him to see – a cleaned-up school with “students” playing soccer, dancing and learning computer skills. He was told that these were “terrorists” and suicide bombers who needed re-education.
So he started asking students: What is your crime and why are you here?
“The answers that we got was that somebody had prayed to God in public. Another one had put on a hijab. Another one had prayed to God and had asked her mother to join her in prayer, which was also considered to be a crime in China.”
Jazexhi said he was shocked and having recorded all of this, uploaded videos to his YouTube channel.
Beyond details of imprisoning and indoctrinating detainees, another secret document in the China Cables sheds light on how Chinese authorities track and sweep up Uighur populations inside and outside the country.
This document, also from 2017, is a series of guidance “bulletins” from the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” which Human Rights Watch describes as a “central brain for surveillance in the region.”
In numerical detail, a bulletin “from June 19th to 25th” describes how the Chinese government was actively monitoring “24,412 suspicious persons” in Xinjiang and throughout the country at the time.
“After conducting verification and handling work, 706 were criminally detained …15,683 were sent to education and training.”
This suggests the infrastructure and personnel needed to round up, transport and detain more than 15,000 people over a week was already in place.
China’s changing response
For years, the Chinese government denied the existence of these camps altogether. As visual, anecdotal and testimonial evidence piled up, its narrative changed to one of re-education.
The ICIJ sought comment and sent a copy of the China Cables to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., both electronically and physically, as well as attempting to reach the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
The only official to respond to ICIJ partners about the documents was from Chinese ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming, who called the reporting “pure fabrication.” “They’re what we call vocational education training centres,” said Liu Xioaming. “They are there for the prevention of terrorism.
“The purpose to set up this training centre is because there are some young people who have … committed minor crimes, not serious enough to be … sent to prison. So the government gave them opportunity to learn language, Mandarin, to be a good citizen and effective worker.”
For Zenz, those who come out of these camps aren’t gaining skills — they’re losing a social identity.
“Probably the No. 1 thing that’s taken away is core relationships, because the people are not supposed to talk about what they went through in the camp.”
Family members are “too scared” to ask those who were in camps about their experiences for fear of also being sent into a camp, Zenz said.
“The No. 1 thing that’s being destroyed by this internment campaign is trust and relationships, the very social fabric of society.”
The impeachment investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump widened on Friday into a constitutional battle between the executive branch and Congress, as Democrats subpoenaed White House officials and the president signalled his administration would not co-operate.
Trump said he would formally object to the impeachment investigation, even as he acknowledged that House Democrats “have the votes” to proceed.
Democrats warned that Trump is “on a path of defiance, obstruction and coverup” and said defying their subpoena would be considered “evidence of obstruction,” potentially an impeachable offence.
The White House was expected to send a letter to House speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing that Congress could not mount its impeachment inquiry without first having a vote to authorize it. The letter was expected to say the administration wouldn’t co-operate with the probe without that vote.
Trump said the resolution would likely pass the House, but he predicted it would backfire on Democrats.
“I really believe that they’re going to pay a tremendous price at the polls,” he said.
Three Democratic chairs — Reps. Elijah Cummings, Adam Schiff and Eliot Engel — warned Trump in a letter accompanying their subpoena.
“Speaker Pelosi has confirmed that an impeachment inquiry is underway, and it is not for the White House to say otherwise,” the letter said.
Trump’s comments came shortly before Democrats sent an extensive request for documents to Vice-President Mike Pence about his contacts with Ukraine.
The West Wing was set to allow the similar request for documents from the president’s staff to go unfulfilled Friday, likely forcing Democrats to make good on their threat to issue a subpoena for the records.
Pence spokesperson Katie Waldman dismissed the new demand for documents, saying that given its wide scope, “it does not appear to be a serious request.”
Democrats have made Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate former vice-president Joe Biden the centrepiece of the impeachment probe.
A whistleblower complaint said that Trump sought to use military assistance for Ukraine to push President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, who is currently running to be the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential candidate.
No clear-cut procedure for impeachment inquiry
When Pelosi recently announced that the House was initiating the inquiry, she didn’t seek the consent of the full chamber, as was done for impeachment investigations into former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
But it is underway, and at a rapidly escalating pace.
Late Thursday, House investigators released a cache of text messages that showed top U.S. diplomats encouraging Ukraine’s newly elected president to conduct an investigation linked to Biden’s family in return for granting a high-profile visit with Trump in Washington.
The release followed a 10-hour interview with one of the diplomats, Kurt Volker, who stepped down as special envoy to Ukraine after the impeachment inquiry had begun.
Trump repeated on Friday that he was pressing Ukraine to investigate corruption, not trying to undermine Biden, who could be his 2020 presidential election opponent. He made a related request of China — specifying Biden and his son Hunter — on Thursday.
As Republicans search for a response to the investigation, the absence of a procedural vote to begin the probe has been a main attack line against Democrats.
Pelosi swatted the need for such a vote back as unnecessary, saying the House is well within its rules to pursue the inquiry without it.
“The existing rules of the House provide House committees with full authority to conduct investigations for all matters under their jurisdiction, including impeachment investigations,” Pelosi wrote Thursday in a letter to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy after he, too, pressed for a floor vote.
Watch: Why supporting impeachment could be risky
Support for Donald Trump’s impeachment is growing, but there is strong division in the swing states where Democrats who back the inquiry are taking a political risk heading into the 2020 election. 2:10
Pelosi has sought to avoid a vote on the impeachment probe for the same reason she resisted — for months — liberal calls to try to remove the president: It would force moderate House Democrats to make a politically risky vote.
The White House, meanwhile, is trying to force the question on Democrats, as it seeks to raise the political cost for their impeachment investigation and to animate the president’s supporters ahead of the 2020 election.
Trump allies have suggested that without a formal vote, the House is merely conducting standard oversight, entitling lawmakers to a lesser level of disclosure from the administration. The Justice Department raised similar arguments last month, though that was before Pelosi announced the impeachment investigation.
Two days after telling reporters, “Well, I always co-operate,” Trump struck a different note on co-operating with the House probe.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s up to the lawyers.”
Democrats have warned that the Trump administration’s obstruction of the investigation is itself a potentially impeachable office. The administration was expected to miss various deadlines Friday to comply with House investigators’ requests for documents.
This is who Donald Trump is.<br><br>A president who abuses the power of the Oval Office to win re-election, turns his back on the fight for democracy in Hong Kong, and puts his own self-interest above the public good.<br><br>We have to show the world who we are. <a href=”https://t.co/Bn24RHqQua”>https://t.co/Bn24RHqQua</a>
There’s no clear-cut procedure in the U.S. Constitution for initiating an impeachment inquiry, leaving many questions about possible presidential obstruction untested in court, said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.
“There’s no specification in the Constitution in what does and does not constitute a more formal impeachment inquiry or investigation,” he said.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, dismissed the entire premise of the impeachment inquiry.
“The president was not tasking Ukraine to investigate a political opponent,” Giuliani told The Associated Press on Thursday. “He wanted an investigation into a seriously conflicted former vice-president of the United States who damaged the reputation of the United States in Ukraine.”
Nearly 900 pages of documents released Thursday detailed a flurry of communications involving Donald Trump, his campaign team and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to engineer hush-money payments to a porn actress who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump shortly before the 2016 U.S. election that saw him become president.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan on Wednesday had ordered that the material, used by prosecutors to obtain a 2018 search warrant for Cohen’s home and office, be unsealed the following morning.
The judge found there was no reason to keep the documents secret after prosecutors told him that their investigation into the payments had ended.
Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in August 2018 to violating campaign finance law by directing payments of $ 130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels and $ 150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal to avert a scandal shortly before the 2016 presidential election.
Both women have said they had sexual encounters with Trump more than a decade ago and the money was meant to buy their silence. Trump has denied the encounters.
Trump also initially denied knowledge of the payments, but the records make clear he was aware of the frenetic efforts to keep silent both women in the days ahead of the election.
Calls to, from National Enquirer company
The search warrant application described a phone call on Oct. 8, 2016, about a month before the election, involving Trump, Cohen and Hope Hicks, then press secretary for Trump’s presidential campaign. Prosecutors believed the phone exchange was to discuss paying to quash public reports of an affair between Trump and Daniels.
A few minutes after that call, Cohen called David Pecker, the president of American Media Inc., who was close to Trump, and then received a call from another employee at AMI, which published the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper. A short time later, Cohen called Hicks back for about two minutes.
Calls between the Trump campaign, AMI and Cohen continued through the evening.
Prosecutors said these calls were to discuss getting a payment to Keith Davidson, then a lawyer for Daniels.
On Oct. 17, Cohen was involved in calls and texts as he feared the attempted settlement agreement might fall apart, according to the warrant application.
The documents indicated Dylan Howard, chief content officer at AMI, believed Daniels might be trying to sell her story to a news outlet after all.
“I’m told they’re going with Daily Mail,” Howard wrote in a text to Cohen late that afternoon, referring to a British tabloid. “Are you aware?” The pair quickly got on the phone. Cohen tried to call Trump but appears to have been unsuccessful, the documents showed.
The negotiations continued, with Cohen communicating multiple times on Oct. 26 with Daniels’s lawyer and the two AMI executives, Pecker and Howard, the documents showed.
The following morning, Cohen called Trump and spoke with him for about three minutes, and then soon after made a second call for about 90 seconds to Trump, the documents showed.
Less than 30 minutes later, Cohen sent emails to a person who had set up the limited liability companies through which the payment funds were handled, asking that he be sent “the filing receipt” as soon as possible, the documents showed.
After meeting with a bank representative from First Republic Bank at Trump Tower that day, Cohen transferred $ 131,000 out of a home equity line of credit that Cohen had at First Republic, which prosecutors said was used to pay Daniels.
Cohen, who was once Trump’s self-described “fixer,” began serving a three-year prison sentence in May for his campaign finance violations and other crimes, including making false statements to a bank and tax evasion.
Pauley had ordered many of the search warrant materials about Cohen’s personal business dealings unsealed earlier this year, but allowed the hush-money documents to remain secret while an investigation involving the payments was still in progress.
Cohen pleaded guilty last November to separate charges brought by the office of former special counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating contacts between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the extent of contacts between Trump and Russians during the campaign.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the released documents.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan declined to comment. But its closure of the investigation strongly suggests prosecutors will not bring criminal charges against anyone besides Cohen.
Cohen remains the only person to be charged in the scheme to protect Trump’s reputation during the 2016 presidential campaign. But prosecutors implicated Trump in court filings, saying he directed Cohen to arrange the hush-money payments. The president has denied wrongdoing.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath revealed new documents on Monday she says show the province had already signed off on leaked health-care legislation the Progressive Conservatives dismissed as "just a draft" last week.
Hours later, Health Minister Christine Elliott battled back at her own news conference, accusing the NDP of "fear-mongering." Elliott also said the material was non-partisan public service documents that she had never seen.
The unnamed bureaucrat allegedly responsible for the document breach has been fired, and the Ontario Provincial Police have been called in to probe the case.
The NDP is accusing the PCs of plotting to privatize healthcare, but the governing party says that's not the case 1:41
But the NDP says the "internal government documents" released on Monday appear to be government presentations, and include references to cabinet approving the plan and appointing board members.
"It's a done deal," Horwath said. "But the entire Ford government has been hiding this plan from the public. Why? Because people won't like it."
The documents follow last week's draft legislation, also leaked by the NDP, showing the Doug Ford government wants to create a "super agency."
The NDP accused the government of trying to create a two-tier private health system in Ontario, but Elliott denied that allegation last week, maintaining the government is committed to strengthening the province's health system.
Analyst cites PC pressure
CBC Toronto has learned that the public servant behind the "unauthorized disclosure of confidential government documents" has been fired. The OPP has been notified of the breach, said Steven Davidson, the head of the Ontario Public Service.
Christo Aivalis, a Queen's University labour studies professor, said while government documents are routinely leaked, the sources of those leaks are rarely fired or prosecuted. He said he believes the PC government is putting pressure on bureaucrats to crack down on leaking.
"I think that it's being done here, because the dirt that's been dug up — for lack of a better term — has real meaning to it, and the government is probably mad the people have found out the nature of their actions," Aivalis said.
"I think they're acting to prevent further leaks of credible information in the future, and that's why they've taken this step."
Christine Elliott says her government is committed to strengthening Ontario's public health-care system. (Ed Middleton/CBC)
In December, high ranking officials received confidential information of the government's planned changes to Ontario's health-care system, Horwath said.
Horwath said the changes would give the PC government "unprecedented power to farm out" services to private sector entities.
The NDP also says the documents introduce a new model of care delivery, called MyCare groups, which would outsource services such as laboratories, many of which are already privately run, and the province's air ambulance service.
NDP says changes from Doug Ford government would overhaul the system and create a two-tier private system. (Shutterstock)
The NDP leader said the contracts would be won through a bid system, which will have "expression of interest" due in March, if the legislation were approved.
No skipping the line
Ontario's health minister said Monday the NDP "intentionally created confusion" about the PCs' plans for health care in Ontario.
Elliott said the government has no plans to create for pay services and says people with money will never be able to "skip the line" when it comes to health-care services.
"We will not be privatizing any of the services referenced today by Andrea Horwath," Elliott said. "In fact, the document that she released today was an internal non-partisan public service document which I have never seen."
Elliott went on to say, her government is bringing "desperately needed and overdue changes" Ontario's health system at a later date.
Last week, the NDP released a draft version of upcoming PC health-care legislation, which would dissolve the province's Local Health Integration Networks (LHIN) and create a "super agency" to oversee the health system.
The NDP received all the documents last week, but only released the draft legislation last week and held onto the internal government documents over the weekend.
"I think it was important for our staff to take as much due diligence as possible," Horwath said, defending her decision to withhold some details last week," she said.
"We do not have anything else to share with you on this subject, and who knows, we all know how this works, today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow and next week is next week."