Since the outbreak began, over 18 million people have contracted coronavirus. The global economy is facing the worst crisis since the Great Depression. And statistics say over 700,000 people have died.
But was all of this preventable?
Dr. Yan Limeng says that in December 2019 she was told by her supervisor at the Hong Kong School of Public Health to investigate the mysterious virus that had emerged in Wuhan, China.
So what did she uncover? And what was the cost of speaking out?
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Limeng Yan, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Limeng Yan: Thank you, Jan. Thank you for your invitation.
Mr. Jekielek: I feel very honored actually to be able to talk to you today. You came out of Hong Kong with an incredible story to tell a little while ago. We know some of it. Some of it has been all over the U.S. on television and so forth. We’re going to do a bit of a deeper dive today.
Dr. Yan: Sure.
Mr. Jekielek: But before we do that, I want to find out from you about the national security law just recently passed in Hong Kong. I’m sure you’ve been thinking about that.
Dr. Yan: Of course. Actually, because I’ve been in mainland China for almost 30 years, [I know] that national security law actually just applies what they have already done in mainland China to Hong Kong and to the other countries related to the CCP’s culture. So we can simply understand it like this. What can be done in Hong Kong has already been done in China.
Mr. Jekielek: So with this national security law, because you were working at the university in Hong Kong, the lab in Hong Kong, would that have changed anything in terms of what you were able to do?
Dr. Yan: Actually, Hong Kong was a free-speaking country. You could talk about things, you could check on things and have your own opinion. But since the Chinese Communist Party brought Hong Kong back to the mainland from the UK, they [the CCP] have been working hard on Hong Kong for 20 years. So Hong Kong became a place with less freedom, especially in the last two years with the Hong Kong movement.
What we know is if you try to question the government, you try to question something that is very unfair, an injustice, done by the Hong Kong government and the CCP, you will get punished or even be disappeared [by authorities]. This has happened to the other Hong Kong protesters. Even your name won’t be left. Your family will be threatened, and no one dares to say this person existed. So it is now worse because they use the law to show the world how powerful they are. And even you, I’m sure now if you take the Cathay Pacific airline, you’d be sent off somewhere to be questioned by the CCP because you are doing something they don’t like.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s that article in the national security law that says that even people who aren’t in Hong Kong and aren’t necessarily Chinese are also under its very ambiguous rules.
Dr. Yan: Yes, exactly. So basically, if you say something that cannot pass their censorship, you are in trouble.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. Of course, we’ve mentioned this in a number of interviews before. Tell me a little bit about your career and where you came from. I want to give a chance for our audience to learn about you as a person. You said you lived in mainland China for 30 years, which is very different from working, of course, in Hong Kong. But tell me a little bit of how you got to your role and let’s start with what your position was when you left.
Dr. Yan: When I left the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health, I was a postdoctoral fellow there. So I finished my medical studies and obtained my MD degree in China and then moved to another university in Guangzhou to get my PhD in ophthalmology. I was supposed to be an ophthalmologist, a surgeon, in China, but I wanted to pursue further research, so I moved to Hong Kong and changed my career to the School of Public Health, working on virology, immunology, and vaccine development. I’ve been in that WHO reference lab for five years, and I independently conducted the universal influenza vaccine project. Later, after the COVID-19 outbreak, besides my secret investigation as a representative of WHO, I also worked on some other research that is related to clinical studies and also lab studies about COVID-19.
Mr. Jekielek: This is interesting. So you were mostly focused on influenza at the beginning?
Dr. Yan: Yes, because my lab is a WHO influenza H5 Reference Lab. We are also the key state emergency disease lab for the Chinese government. And also, we conduct surveillance for zoonotic viruses all over the world, like SARS. At that time, my lab was the top lab doing this kind of study and now [it’s] still the top coronavirus lab in the world, with top virologists like Professor Malik Peiris, Professor Guan Yi, Professor Leo Poon and Dr. K. Y. [Kwok-yung] Yuen also work for the University of Hong Kong. So this is the group of people who have studied coronavirus since 2003 and later moved to MERS—a second type of coronavirus that gives people some bad effects and that affects our global health—and later we moved to COVID-19.
Since COVID-19 came out, we also need to conduct this kind of research, and as a WHO reference lab, they need to report what they know about Global Health Surveillance issues to WHO and to the world. That’s why Professor Leo Poon, at the beginning, asked me to do the secret investigation as a representative of a WHO reference lab through my network in mainland China, because of the lack of information from the Chinese government.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re basically saying that—I just want to make sure we got everything—your boss asked you to conduct an investigation, a little bit hidden, like you said, secret. Now, why did such an investigation need to be hidden?
Dr. Yan: Because he knew that he could not get official information from the Chinese government. … The CCP doesn’t want him to know [what’s going on], but he had to write a report at least to the Hong Kong government. And also as a WHO consultant, he wanted to know more about this. So that’s why he asked me to do the investigation in secret in case this gave us trouble—we couldn’t publicly do that.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting. Tell me a little bit about how this played out and maybe the timeline. When did you first become aware of this unknown virus? When did you become aware that it has lethality, that it’s human-to-human transmissible? Tell me a little bit about that.
Dr. Yan: This is a long story, but briefly, back on December 31 last year when I was assigned this task, the first time I knew of this was after making contact and having discussions with very professional people back in mainland China. I got first-hand information that at that time, Wuhan already had over 40 cases confirmed—not as they said, 27. And also in Wuhan, they already had the genome sequence of the virus—not as they claimed [that they didn’t have it until] mid-January. And the other very important thing is that there was human-to-human transmission because there were family clusters. This is based on public health knowledge; you can quickly judge this.
But China’s government doesn’t want people to talk about it or release this information. All this information is held by the top-level government in China, and they are the ones who give the statement. Everything has to be discussed based on their statement, even if you’re a doctor or professor. And also they want people to believe that this virus came from the Wuhan Huanan seafood market; although we see at least one-third of the people [who were infected] didn’t have that history. But without this history, you couldn’t get diagnosed.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re describing the inconsistencies you found talking to the different people in your network—the inconsistencies compared to the official party line.
Dr. Yan: Yes. I reported back immediately to Professor Leo Poon, and he wanted me to keep this a secret. Later he also contacted one professional to get more information, and then told me, “You don’t need to do this now.” That was January 3. He said, “I can directly contact them, and I have to protect them.” “Protect” means that they know this is illegal according to Chinese invisible security state law. On January 16, I was again assigned this task for almost two weeks. Actually, Professor Leo Poon has his own way to know what is happening in China, and I was put aside, so I tried to get information by myself.
Also at that time, as you may know, Dr. Li Wenliang was punished, so those doctors had to shut up about these issues. No more news came out, no more information, and I thought the WHO may have already gotten involved, until the next time I got into the investigation.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a lot going on in what you just told me. Let’s see if I’ve got it right. When did your boss take you off the case?
Dr. Yan: January 3. But then later, on January 16, again he told me at his office that he wanted me to do more investigation about this and to be careful. Otherwise, I would be disappeared [by authorities].
Mr. Jekielek: That’s what he said?
Dr. Yan: Yes. Exactly what he said. “Don’t cross the red line.”
Mr. Jekielek: So what would the red line be?
Dr. Yan: As I mentioned [when I was interviewed in] “War Room: Pandemic,” actually, the red line is a thing in your mind. You are trained by the CCP government, so you understand things that they don’t like. That means, “Don’t cross the red line.” So if you cannot see the red line, you have to make judgments by yourself. But that means, in case you do cross the red line by accident, you have to face the risk, so the safest thing to do is to get far away from it. So that’s why people keep silent when facing these things.
Mr. Jekielek: So are you saying that he was telling you to investigate but not seriously?
Dr. Yan: No. Let me explain. For us Chinese, under CCP rule, we understand that it is something he, as a WHO consultant, wanted me to do, and when I do the investigation, I have to be careful because there are a lot of invisible lines there, and I have to make judgments to know whether China’s government likes it or not. If I hear someone say, “Oh, our government doesn’t want us to talk about this,” then I should stop there and turn back to tell him, “Yes, this is a line, and that side, there is another line.” He will build his theory based on these lines in the immediate range.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. That’s a very complicated way to do research.
Dr. Yan: You have to have at least 30 years of training like me in mainland China to understand this [culture].
Mr. Jekielek: At what point did you become convinced that there was human-to-human transmission?
Dr. Yan: Early January, as I said. So from December 31, I knew that Wuhan already knew that. And also our government tried to deliver this sample to Beijing to do further tests. Basically, that means they can postpone the time to publish the result. And after that, you still cannot publish it. You have to tell the top-level government, let them make a statement. So I believe during the whole process, they are sure that there is human-to-human transmission.
It’s not a difficult thing for you to make a judgment. When you see the history of the disease, you’ll see people’s travel history and see how they came into contact with the patient and get infected, so these things are very basic facts you can get when you talk to the patient. And as a public health expert, it’s very easy for them to build on the facts that this is or isn’t human-to-human transmission.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think they said it wasn’t?
Dr. Yan: I think they have thousands of ways to explain that, like what they’re doing now. For me, I cannot explain their motive, but I can tell you what I saw then. Not only just that, they actually covered up a lot of things. More than that. So that’s just the beginning of their lies. If you have been staying in communist China, you will understand that sometimes even for a simple thing, they won’t tell you the truth. I cannot explain it because I don’t like to lie, but they lie. So that’s really something about the motive that we have to ask the CCP regime. They can answer it very well. They’re the experts.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think the WHO basically followed the regime’s position as opposed to doing its own research? Or did it do its own research?
Dr. Yan: You mean whether they have done the research by themselves?
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Dr. Yan: I heard that the WHO, from internal information, I’m sure there are some WHO consultants like Malik Peiris who have been to Wuhan. This is not published. But what I also know is the Chinese government doesn’t tell people the truth about what really happened in Wuhan. For example, if a WHO expert goes to Wuhan, they may not get the chance to go to the lab. That place may be where the virus came from. I mean, [inaudible] to anyone’s question. And also they are not allowed to get samples from the Wuhan Huanan seafood market. These are done by the local experts organized by the CCP. So based on this, the WHO experts can come to their own conclusions.
But why do they only rely on the evidence that the CCP government gives them? That’s also another question people should ask. What we have seen is that the WHO lied during this COVID-19 pandemic, it collaborated with the CCP government, and also gave out misleading information later. They said that it’s not a pandemic, there’s no point to keep China isolated with a travel ban, no point to wear a mask, and no point to take hydroxychloroquine, and all these things.
The WHO has done more damage than I thought in this crisis. Why do they do that? Why do they help the CCP government? It’s back to that question. Only they can give you an answer to their motive.
Mr. Jekielek: Very, very interesting. Tell me your perspective on hydroxychloroquine.
Dr. Yan: First, this is not a magic drug. There is no magic drug in the world. But we have to think about whether to use this drug or not based on reality. So practically, as a doctor, if you want to suggest to your patients to use something, you have to consider whether it’s safe and whether you have an alternative choice. And if there is some side effect, comparing that to the good effect, which is [more significant]?
Hydroxychloroquine actually has been used for a long time, for over 60 years, initially as antimalarial for both prevention and also treatment. Long-term studies have already shown that long-term applications are safe even for pregnant ladies and kids. Of course, patients need to do a half-yearly check-up on their retinas but that is not a big deal compared to many other drugs.
And also, hydroxychloroquine can be used as anti-SARS. Even Dr. Fauci has done some research about that back in 2005, I remember. And another thing is, if you focus on the mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS—basically SARS-CoV-2 is the enhanced version of SARS—their core mechanism to target people is the cytokine storm. I have to mention that this was first discovered by Professor Malik Peiris.
This means that you have an overreaction of immunity in your body. So your immune system becomes messed up, starts to attack the good as the bad, and this drug can overcome that. So this drug has been used for autoimmune diseases and for the long term. So based on the three facts that I have confirmed and verified, I think at this moment, facing a high mutating virus as SARS-CoV-2 and when we don’t have a very effective vaccine—it takes time to do studies on vaccines—and people have to have a good prevention for this highly contagious virus. Then this drug can be applied to help people with prevention and also treatment.
Of course, we expect a universal vaccine, efficient vaccine, or even a better drug to overcome this. But at this moment, you can compare doctors’ clinical data, and you will see that the doctors’ data supports hydroxychloroquine. The quality is much better than those against hydroxychloroquine. You can see the result for yourself.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk a little bit about the statistics coming out of China and get your opinion because in the U.S., you have a lot of media that will take the official statistics on COVID-19, or CCP virus as we call it at The Epoch Times and some others that we know of, and they will report those statistics as if they were facts. “China actually hasn’t had such a big problem with coronavirus, according to the official statistics; the U.S. is way ahead in deaths and cases, and everything else.” What’s your opinion on this?
Dr. Yan: You mean the statistics of the death toll and also the confirmed cases from China?
Mr. Jekielek: Correct.
Dr. Yan: What I can tell you is maybe the Chinese government doesn’t even know how many people got infected and died, because there are many, many methods for diagnosis that I have heard of and I know confirmed from China during COVID-19. So as I mentioned, they can postpone the diagnosis and also just refuse to give you enough test kits to do the final diagnosis.
I think maybe the people in the U.S. don’t know this very well, that in the U.S. and other countries, you can use the diagnostic methods with at least 90 to 95 percent accuracy, but in mainland China, although my lab at an early time developed a quick diagnostic kit that the WHO recommended to many countries, mainland China doesn’t apply that. They just use their own diagnostic kits, and many of their own only result in 20 to 30 percent accuracy.
But 30 percent accuracy doesn’t mean that with 3 tests you can get a good result. No, that means at least you have to do 9 times or 11 times, then you get a real result. But remember, in mainland China, 2 tests and a result is confirmed. So you can imagine how many cases are ignored in such a situation. And one more thing that maybe can make you understand it better: we didn’t even have people die at Tiananmen in 1989 according to China’s government.
Mr. Jekielek: The big question is, is there, in your opinion, a political will to underreport? That’s the allegation. That’s what the data that we’ve seen suggests that they’re grossly underreporting. I want to get your perspective on that.
Dr. Yan: Based on the diagnostic cases, what I know is the real death rate is definitely much higher than what they reported because based on what we have studied, even the influenza study, China’s government uses another way to judge death cases.
It’s not like in the U.S. and other countries where you get infected, you go to the hospital, and somehow you pass away due to either complications or other problems induced by these infections, then you’re counted as a death case of COVID-19. Now in China, from what I know, they even give these people some ventilation and other life support until their oral tests come back negative, twice, by using the swab sample, and then after that, they can remove the ventilation and say, “Oh, he died, but he didn’t die of COVID-19.”
Mr. Jekielek: Do doctors in China know that there’s been a cover up and the reporting is inconclusive around the coronavirus?
Dr. Yan: Not only doctors, even the common people know, especially when this began. They know that, and they are in fear, especially before I revealed it through the media, through YouTube media, and our government then had to change their statement to admitting that human-to-human transmission exists and that there are more cases outside of Wuhan. Before that, our government left those patients without results in the common ward of hospitals, and doctors, patients, and patients’ relatives didn’t wear protective clothing. They were all in fear, and also China’s government didn’t allow them to talk about it.
Later, there were other measurements like you cannot publish papers without going through censorship, and you cannot do some kind of treatment, you have to follow guidance, like using some kind of Chinese medicine that they recommended. So these are all the things they already knew about.
But I have to say, it’s not that they don’t want to tell the truth. There are some doctors and groups of professionals who really want to tell the truth, but considering the situation in mainland China, just like the Hong Kong national security law, with this kind of pressure, they have no way to talk about it. And if they do talk about it, they have to face huge losses in their lives. You cannot expect everyone to do such things. That takes a lot of courage. So they know it, and many more people know it, but they cannot talk about it in public.
Mr. Jekielek: Why did you decide to go public with this, knowing the risk?
Dr. Yan: Because I have been sent twice for this investigation, and in mid-January when I did the second investigation, I realized that the real situation was worse than I thought, and no actions from the WHO and the CCP government would overcome this. So at that time, on January 17, when I saw these things, I decided to tell it through my own way.
I had to find a way to tell the world, at least to make our government understand that there is huge pressure from outside, you have to do something and not suspend this research from overseas experts. Instead, you should let the experts go to Wuhan to know what really happened because it was Chinese New Year at that time and millions of people travelled through Wuhan, a big city in central China, and this would result in an outbreak soon. But I knew I couldn’t rely on my supervisor or the government, so I thought that I had to reveal this through the only media I trust from Mr. Lu De.
At that time, I knew my life would be threatened, and similar to the Hong Kong protesters or others who tried to tell the truth in mainland China, I could be disappeared at any time without any evidence. But I also couldn’t face [the consequences of not speaking out.] If in the future when I saw the outbreak emerge and people suffering from this since this was covered up and I didn’t tell the truth, I couldn’t face that—I wouldn’t forgive myself. And also I realized if at that time I didn’t tell the truth, that means I would lose my capacity to tell the truth in my life, so that’s why I decided to deliver the message to Mr. Lu De. At least before I got disappeared, I want someone else to send out this message.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible and very courageous. Briefly, tell me, what happened after this and how it is that you ended up coming to the United States?
Dr. Yan: Several hours after Lu De’s show played on January 19 this year, our government quickly responded because they knew someone released the real information. So after four hours, the confirmed cases jumped from 60 to 198—tripled. And also the next day, they confirmed that there are other cases outside of Wuhan, in Guangzhou and in Shanghai. And then they admitted that human-to-human transmission exists. Also Chairman Xi Jinping issued a statement, the first statement in 2020, to update the level of SARS-CoV-2 as an infectious disease similar to SARS. Three days later, Wuhan got locked down.
After that, there were more lies coming out, and that was beyond my expectations. They didn’t take real efficient measures to control this outbreak, so I was very angry and also disappointed with my government. I already had been investigating, so I knew more than other people. I realized that at that time.
I kept working with Mr. Lu De and delivered my message through his platform to tell people, for example, about what happened in hospitals, how the government censored the study about COVID-19. My government understood that it definitely would go back and trace the source to Mr. Lu De. So in mid-April, Mr. Lu De told me that I was in danger. And also at that time, I realized that English-speaking countries are totally isolated from Chinese-speaking countries. Our message was efficiently delivered to our audience in Chinese, but overseas, when people are faced with this pandemic and with the misinformation by the WHO and the Chinese government, they don’t understand what happened.
And I realized I may be the only one who can tell this truth to the world, but I really couldn’t tell it in Hong Kong. Once I stood out, I would be disappeared. You’d know nothing. So at that time, Mr. Lu De and the organization who helps people when they get persecuted by China’s government, they helped me to escape from Hong Kong. And I took the flight.
Just several hours after I left, the Hong Kong policemen immediately knew it. The University of Hong Kong and the Vice-Chancellor Professor Zhang Xiang, organized alumni, students, and staff to search for me, to get all my information. And some people from my friend group worked with the Hong Kong government or the policemen. They told all my friends, even middle school friends back in China, that I have no privacy, that they have to tell the policemen all the details they know about me, especially related to COVID-19, because I was involved in a criminal case. And they had to take responsibility for hiding anything related to me.
And for my parents, just the same day, when I was still on the flight, the Hong Kong government informed the Ministry of State Security in Beijing. And then they sent people to Qingdao, my hometown, to my home and threatened my family. My parents, I have to say, were brainwashed. And they obediently collaborated with them. [They thought] I was lying and I did something that harmed the security of my beloved homeland.
And also from the middle of May, even before I came to the public, the Chinese government started to spread a lot of rumors to attack me. They made a fake Facebook account using my profile, and they spread rumors on Twitter using the cyber-military, and also on Reddit, on YouTube. They ruined my reputation.
They tried to describe me as someone who is poor and does nothing, incapable and who wants to get money and a Green Card from the U.S. And although I have a Nature paper that I was a first co-author for, they just described me as a hamster keeper in Hong Kong. [They did things] like this. So they tried their best to ruin me and ruin my credibility, and stop me, keep me silent. And unfortunately, my husband, who I’d been married to for over seven years, collaborated with them in this case.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m very, very sorry about all this. And sorry for laughing at the hamster keeper. We know you’re quite a bit more than a hamster keeper. I know that we just got a message that we have to finish up urgently, but any final words before we do?
Dr. Yan: I think everyone deserves to know the truth and everyone is involved, your health, your economic situation, your life. So we should go back to the one who initiated this outbreak, and I mean the CCP government, and ask them to be accountable.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you very much. Such a pleasure to have you on and the best of luck.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.