Bird Flu Mystery Recalls Chinese SARS Coverup

April 2 (Bloomberg) -- For residents of Nanjing, China, perhaps the only thing worse than learning that the new, apparently virulent strain of H7N9 bird flu had infected someone in their city was learning it via a document leaked to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like microblog, by a hospital administrator.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely the chain of events that took place this morning, just two days after Chinese health authorities announced that they’d confirmed three cases of a new strain of bird flu -- two of which were found in Shanghai and resulted in fatalities. This evening, health authorities in Jiangsu confirmed the Nanjing case and three more, for a total of seven cases.

For those (like me) who lived in China during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, today’s events feel eerily familiar. Back then, Chinese officials covered up SARS for months, suppressing data, the location of outbreaks and access to patients by the World Health Organization, all in the hope of preventing public panic and, many presumed, preserving promising public-health careers. The result was a widespread epidemic (both domestically and internationally), international embarrassment and substantial economic damages.

In the wake of this catastrophe, China increased spending on health care, committed to increased transparency and established emergency plans in the case of a new epidemic. In 2009, some of those plans were tested during the worldwide swine-flu pandemic. But that didn’t originate in China, nor did it prove to be the fatal threat that many feared -- and for which those plans were devised.

Is the new variety of bird flu that threat? So far, there are simply too few known cases to judge the virulence of the virus. Neither the World Health Organization nor the Chinese authorities yet know how the virus is spreading. Based on Chinese authorities’ observations of those who have associated with infected patients, it appears unlikely that human-to-human transmission is the likely vector. That’s a reassuring claim.

Nonetheless, for a Chinese public and international community that’s grown accustomed to less-than-total transparency from Chinese public-health authorities, it lacks credibility. That credibility gap has only been widened over the last 48 hours as Chinese learned that public-health authorities waited nearly three weeks before informing them of the Shanghai-area infections. (Actual confirmation of the precise virus didn’t happen until March 29, but authorities were aware they had something serious and new in their midst weeks before).

Fortunately, the odds are that the 2013 bird-flu outbreak will turn out to be not much of a crisis at all. But that’s little consolation to Chinese wondering about their odds in a pandemic. This evening, H7N9 is a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, with many voices openly doubting the public information about the virus and the speed at which it was disseminated. If the Chinese government hopes to cool the nerves of its netizens, it’d be well-advised to remember the lessons of SARS before it’s too late to act on them.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)