Washington: China's secrecy has led to fatal consequences in the COVID-19 pandemic. 6 million people died by official count, and the cover-up is immense and still in place.

China should now agree to a full and thorough scientific investigation that returns to Wuhan. This black box needs to be opened, reported The Washington Post.

The story of how the pandemic got started -- and turned into a global catastrophe -- remains a black box. It should not be.

The first cases could provide the most important clues about the origins of the virus, yet we know the least about them. They could show whether the outbreak began by a zoonotic spillover, perhaps from animals sold at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, or was an inadvertent research-related accident, such as a leak from a research facility in Wuhan.

The early cases could illuminate missteps in public health that allowed the virus to spread. They could point to failures in the early warning and surveillance systems, offering important lessons for the future.

And knowing more about the early cases could reveal the extent to which China concealed vital information from the public when the outbreak might still have been brought under control, reported The Washington Post.

It is particularly important to discover how far and wide the virus spread in December 2019. The outbreak probably eluded detection at first, then was detected but not recognized as a new disease by doctors and nurses. After that, it was both detected and recognized, but the vital reporting was suppressed by Chinese authorities, both local and national.

To prevent the next pandemic, and to better understand this one, a serious, sustained and credible investigation is needed, reported The Washington Post.

In the autumn of 2019, there were many signals that something unusual was happening in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people.

Medical records show influenza-like illness, a measure of patients with respiratory ailment, soared late in November and in December in Wuhan at a rate higher than previous winter surges.

Officially, the first case was someone who fell ill on either December 10 or 11, though it has been difficult to establish.

The researchers have determined that by the end of February 2020, China had identified as many as 260 cases from the previous December. Yet China reported to the World Health Organization a year later -- in early 2021 -- that there were only 174 cases that December.

This raises important and still unanswered questions: Who were these early cases? How did they get sick? Why were they not reported to the WHO? asked The Washington Post.

In late December and early January, Chinese scientists identified and verified the virus as a SARS-type through genomic sequencing. This raised a red flag: It had strong potential for human-to-human transmission. But they did not warn the public, reported The Washington Post.

The government did not disclose any new cases to the public. Chinese authorities covered up the truth rather than reveal it -- the trademark of an authoritarian, secretive system that prizes political stability at any cost.

About a year later, in early 2021, another attempt to answer questions about the origins of the pandemic got underway. From January 14 to February 10, a joint mission of 17 Chinese scientists and 17 from other countries and the World Health Organization met in Wuhan. Within the overall mission, a smaller working group on epidemiology studied the vital question of early cases.

The WHO report said, "no firm conclusion" could be drawn yet about the seafood market, which sold live animals and frozen meat, among other products.

A major lesson of the pandemic is that disease surveillance -- early warning systems -- is crucial. Surveillance can give a leg up on mitigating disease spread, track the path and makeup of transmission in the population, and help vaccine and therapeutic researchers start to develop countermeasures, reported The Washington Post.

But as China discovered, the window for early warning might be short, and spotting an illness can be especially difficult if the pathogen has never been seen before.