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.
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.
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. A foreign ministry spokesman, asked about state media reports that the virus originated outside China, said only that it was important to distinguish between where Covid-19 was first detected and where it crossed the species barrier to infect humans.
“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Chinese scientists have even submitted a paper for publication to the Lancet – although it has not yet been peer-reviewed – that claims “Wuhan is not the place where human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission first happened”, suggesting instead that the first case may have been in the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”.
Claims that the virus had origins outside China are given little credence by western scientists. Michael Ryan, director of the health emergencies programme 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.
Reports of Covid 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.
“What appears certain is that the first recorded cases of the disease were in China,” added Stoye. “It thus remains most likely that the virus originated in China.”
And while traces of coronavirus have been found on frozen food packaging, scientists think that represents a very low risk for a disease now believed to be overwhelmingly transmitted through respiratory droplets.
A positive test “doesn’t indicate infectious virus, just that some signal from the virus is present on that surface,” Andrew Pekosz of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University told AP. “I’ve seen no convincing data that Sars-CoV-2 on food packaging poses a significant risk for infection.”
But as the human and economic toll of the pandemic mounts, Beijing is keen to protect its reputation at home and abroad. Covid-19 has now infected over 60 million people and killed nearly 1.5 million.
Since recovering from the devastation of its own initial outbreak, China has sought to bolster its standing abroad with medical aid.
It is now also promoting several vaccines it has in late-stage development as part of its contribution to the “global good”, offering help with manufacturing and funding immunisation drives. But resentment at Beijing’s role in unleashing the pandemic may ultimately prove harder for China to tackle than the disease itself.
“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 thinktank.
“Recent months have shown what a catastrophic impact the pandemic has had for China in international public opinion.”
He does not think there is any doubt in the minds of senior Chinese leadership about the origin of the virus, and sees the focus on reporting possible alternative origins as a propaganda campaign.
The reports fit an internal narrative of a strong China led by an efficient Communist party. Domestically, Beijing has promoted its enormous success in virtually eradicating the disease and returning life within its borders to something like normal. Internationally, China’s aims probably include introducing some doubt for global audiences who are likely to believe it, turning basic facts into a “contested, politically sensitive matter” in relations with Beijing, Small said.
China’s questioning of the origin of the virus in Wuhan might be more credible if it was supporting an independent investigation into the disease, but instead authorities have repeatedly proved obstructive.
WHO investigators who visited Wuhan earlier this year were not able to visit the food market linked to the initial outbreak. A new team is expected to head to China soon to build on initial work by a Chinese team, but they still don’t have a date for travel, with the WHO saying only that they will travel “in due time”.
Understanding the origins of Covid-19 is vital to efforts to prevent the next pandemic. Unfortunately, for now Beijing seems more focused on the question of who should carry blame for the disease, than on understanding where it came from.
“What we’re seeing at the moment is indicative of where the Chinese government wants all this to come out – and that place is certainly not an open, accountable effort to determine what went wrong and ensure that it never happens again,” Small said.