Politics might have played its part in stalling the flow of information about a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed 170 people in China, according to a leading Chinese epidemiologist. Responding to criticism that authorities in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in central China, were slow to inform the public about the illness, Zeng Guang, from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said government officials always had to factor in political stability. “They need to consider economic factors, and issues like family reunions over the Lunar New Year. So what we [scientists] said was only part of their considerations,” tabloid Global Times quoted Zeng as saying on Wednesday. Critics and internet users in China have said that the Wuhan government was too slow to respond, focusing on the illness as “preventable and controllable” until it became too widespread . Zeng stressed that he was not criticising the municipal government, but said lessons should be learned and science should carry more weight in such decisions. “If a scientific perspective is not given sufficient weight, other considerations will be meaningless,” he said. Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang told state television on Monday that he waited for approval from more senior officials to release updates. But Zeng said that even experts struggled to understand epidemics in the early stages. “There’s no way to tell if [the disease] doesn’t show [in numbers],” he said. “I went to Wuhan twice and the two trips felt very different.” He added that it was not uncommon for epidemiologists to reject their findings as outbreaks developed. Zeng also praised a group of eight people – including at least one doctor – who shared messages online about the outbreak in late December only to be summoned by police for “spreading rumours” . In the messages, the doctor initially called the illnesses cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, but later said the illness was unidentified. Police said the Sars description was unverified and therefore a “rumour”, warning the group not to disclose further information. In the report on Wednesday, Zeng described the group as “wise”, chiming with criticism from the country’s top court about the police action. In an article published on the Supreme People’s Court’s social media account, a Beijing-based judge said that while the information shared in the group was not accurate, it should have been tolerated. “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the judge said, referring to a market believed by some scientists to be the source of the outbreak in Wuhan. Zeng also said he supported Wuhan’s decision to lock down the city , adding that it was an effective way to stop further transmission of the virus. “We shall be able to see a turning point around ... [February 8],” he said. “If that turning point appears, we will have to thank the people of Wuhan.” Zhou said that despite the public outcry about the lockdown he stood by the decision and was prepared to pay a professional price for it. “Shutting down the gates might help stop the disease [from spreading] but we will all be judged by history,” he told state run CCTV on Tuesday. “As long as we can bring the disease under control, we are willing to be fired if the people are not happy.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.