Top Chinese officials secretly determined they were likely facing a pandemic from a new coronavirus in mid-January, ordering preparations even as they downplayed it in public.

Internal documents obtained by the AP show that because warnings were muffled inside China, it took a confirmed case in Thailand to jolt Beijing into recognizing the possible pandemic before them.

Still, it was nearly a week before officials warned the public.

In that week, tens of thousands dined at a mass banquet and millions traveled through Wuhan, at the center of the outbreak.

Experts say an earlier warning could have saved lives.

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