• The Financial District


Nearly a year after doctors identified the first cases of a worrying new disease in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the country appears to be stepping up a campaign to question the origins of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Emma Grham-Harrison and Robin McKie reported for The Guardian.

State media has been reporting intensively on coronavirus discovered on packaging of frozen food imports, not considered a significant vector of infection elsewhere, and research into possible cases of the disease found outside China’s borders before December 2019. “What appears certain is that the first recorded cases of the disease were in China,” said Prof. Jonathan Stoye, a virologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It thus remains most likely that the virus originated in China.”

The official People’s Daily newspaper claimed in a Facebook post last week that “all available evidence suggests that the coronavirus did not start in central China’s Wuhan… Wuhan was where the coronavirus was first detected but it was not where it originated,” it quoted Zeng Guang, formerly a chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying.

“Although China was the first to report cases, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the virus originated in China,” Zhao Lijian told a briefing. “Origin tracing is an ongoing process that may involve multiple countries and regions.” Chinese scientists have even submitted a paper for publication to the Lancet – although it has not yet been peer-reviewed – that claims “Wuhan is not the place where human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission first happened”, suggesting instead that the first case may have been in the “Indian subcontinent,” where the Chinese had been poaching for wildlife, or even Southeast Asia, where the China had been harvesting pangolins illegally.

Claims that the virus had origins outside China are given little credence by western scientists. Michael Ryan, director of the health emergencies program at the World Health Organization (WHO), said last week that it would be “highly speculative” to argue that the disease did not emerge in China. “It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.

“China is still struggling to deal with the fact that it is held responsible for the ‘original sin’ of the outbreak, which undercuts virtually every effort to salvage its image,” said Andrew Small, a China scholar and senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a US think tank. “Recent months have shown what a catastrophic impact the pandemic has had for China in international public opinion.” Reports of COVID-19 circulating in Italy in autumn 2019, based on samples from a cancer unit, seem “weak”, said Prof. Jonathan Stoye, a virologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “The serological data [from Italy] can most likely be explained by cross-reactive antibodies directed against other coronaviruses.” In other words, antibodies found in the cases in Italy had been triggered in individuals who had been infected by different coronaviruses, not those responsible for COVID-19.

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