Coronavirus: China did its best to quickly react to COVID-19, Chinese Ambassador to NZ Wu Xi claims

The Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand is adamant China moved "swiftly" to learn about COVID-19 and alert the world, but couldn't explain a reported six-day delay in warning Chinese residents about the potential pandemic.

Ambassador Wu Xi appeared on The AM Show on Friday in response to allegations from the United States that China wasn't transparent about the virus which has killed nearly 145,000 people worldwide. US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown was on the show earlier this week saying China wasn't upfront and denied international experts access to Wuhan - where the outbreak began - for more than a month.

Wu's view, however, is that her country acted "swiftly" to learn as much as it could about the novel coronavirus and make decisions based on scientific advice.

"COVID-19 is a new virus, little is known to the world before its outbreak, and it is fair to say that China was caught off guard. We need time to know what it is, whether it transmits among humans, how it transmits, how to diagnose and how to treat the patients. I suppose every Government would do the same for a new virus," she told The AM Show.

Wu explained that on December 27 authorities learnt from local doctors of several suspected cases of an infectious disease. She said two days later authorities began investigating and issued a notice to medical institutions about patients with pneumonia of an unknown cause. On December 31, when dozens of these cases were detected, China notified the World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries.

However, questions have been raised about China's actions in the weeks afterwards. 

An Associated Press report released on Thursday says documents from January 14 show health authorities were aware the virus was "likely to develop into a major public health event" and that human-to-human transmission was "possible". That's despite residents later being told the risk was "low". 

On January 15, the WHO tweeted that a preliminary investigation by Chinese authorities "found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission".

AP reports the January 14 memo said: "With the coming of the Spring Festival, many people will be travelling, and the risk of transmission and spread is high. All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic."

While health authorities began work behind the scenes in identifying suspected cases and having doctors don protective equipment, it wasn't until January 20, six days later, that President Xi Jinping warned Chinese residents of the severe dangers of the virus. 

Cited by AP, Daniel Mattingly, a scholar of Chinese politics at Yale University, reacted to the memo by saying: "My guess is, they wanted to let it play out a little more and see what happened."

During those six days, AP says more than 3000 people became infected as events continued for the Chinese New Year. The delay has been defended by some as showing China wasn't wanting to cause panic prematurely.

Wu wasn't aware of the six-day delay when asked about it on The AM Show, but she again stressed China moved quickly.

"It's a new virus and people need time to understand what it is, and people need certain procedures to decide whether there will be an epidemic and then actions will be taken," she said.

"It's not fair to say any decisions will be taken lightly, any decisions will not be made on the scientific findings…. Any allegation of China's delayed actions is not fair."

China has also been criticised for initially reprimanding doctors who raised the alarm about a mysterious SARS-like virus in December. As evidence of the virus grew, authorities apologised.

Wuhan was locked down on January 23, and Wu questioned why China was being "singled out" when other countries weren't ceasing mass gatherings at the time.

When New Zealand placed a travel ban on China, Wu wrote an opinion piece for Newshub saying they should be lifted in accordance with WHO recommendations at the time.

But since the outbreak spread around the world, China has barred entry to almost all foreigners.

When asked if she would apologise to the world for the outbreak, Wu didn't, instead saying the outbreak could have happened "anywhere in the world" and that China had taken action to stop wildlife trade rampant at wet markets.

"We still don't know where the origin of the virus is and we need to wait for the scientists to reach a conclusion," Wu said.

She questioned whether countries where other viruses began were being told to apologise for them and called on people to stop the blame, singling out the United States.

"I have seen lots of rhetorics by the US politicians of blaming others. They blame, blame, and blame… I don't think blaming others will be helpful. Blaming others, scapegoating others will only strengthen their belief that what they are doing is right."

There are currently nearly 2.2 million cases worldwide of the illness and 145,000 deaths. Over the last month, China has seen a dramatic decline in the number of cases it has reported, likely as a result of the strict lockdown procedures it eventually imposed.