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China changed its coronavirus origin story again – you won’t believe the new claims

Published Jul 6th, 2020 12:30PM EDT
Coronavirus Origin Story
Image: Ng Han Guan/AP/Shutterstock

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  • The coronavirus origin story is still a mystery as China has yet to release an official explanation for the Wuhan outbreak that is believed to have started the pandemic.
  • In anticipation of the joint investigation with the WHO in China, some Chinese officials offered a new hypothesis for the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • A study from Spain said traces of the virus were found in wastewater in March 2019, and China says the novel virus may have originated there.

The official origin story of the novel coronavirus pandemic was the Wuhan market, but then things changed in late May. That’s when we witnessed a pivotal moment in the chronology of the pandemic. China said that the wet market isn’t actually where it all started. Chinese officials also reiterated that the disease was not artificially manufactured in a Wuhan lab. Health and intelligence experts around the world had already agreed that the virus developed naturally in animals before jumping to humans, although conspiracy theories offered more exciting stories. But China did not say where the infection started.

Who is Patient Zero? If anything, the official timeline of the disease shows that China tried to delay news of the pathogen by silencing doctors who were raising the alarms, and it was slow to lock down Wuhan as well as the rest of the country. Since late December, China has fought official investigations and often sparred with the US on the origin of the virus. It even tried to suggest that America was to blame for the pandemic at one point.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is about to start an official investigation of COVID-19’s origins, and China supposedly welcomes it. But government officials would like everyone to know that all countries should be investigated equally, as the virus might have started outside China. In fact, China has a new suspect: Spain.

The Wuhan paradox

Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology Wang Yanyi told China Central Television in late May that the novel coronavirus is significantly different from the pathogen that a Wuhan lab had been dealing with. Separately, China Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Gao Fu told Chinese state media that samples from the Wuhan market failed to show links between animals sold there and the virus. “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims,” Fu said at the time.

China did not offer any other explanations, nor were international officials allowed to conduct independent investigations. That’s aside from the official WHO-China inquiry from February.

The Spain connection

A study from Spain said a few days ago that wastewater samples tested for SARS-CoV-2 showed the virus was spreading in the population as early as January 15th, some 41 days before the first official case was declared in Spain. These findings were in line with recent research from Italy and France that revealed the local COVID-19 outbreaks began months earlier than initially believed. Similarly, US researchers found potential COVID-19 cases dating back to December, with the CDC saying that community transmission had started well before the first confirmations.

More puzzlingly, the Spanish researches found SARS-CoV-2 traces in samples dating back to March 12th, 2019. That’s a finding that needs to be verified, particularly given the fact that the study had not been peer-reviewed. Seeing traces of the virus in a sample would indicate that a large number of people were carrying for it to find its way into wastewater. But Spain had no reports of a strange new pneumonia back in March 2019. There could be plenty of explanations as to why the sample tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Even if we were to entertain the idea that a mild version of SARS-CoV-2 emerged from Spain, and then somehow arrived in China mutating along the way, it still doesn’t explain China’s first few weeks of handling its original epidemic. Were it not for the Wuhan outbreak in December, the world would not be in this predicament.

Coronavirus in China
Residents take nucleic acid tests at a testing post set up at a plaza in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, May 15, 2020. Wuhan will arrange nucleic acid tests for all residents who have not been tested before, in order to better know the number of asymptomatic cases of the novel coronavirus. Image source: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock

Why China can’t be trusted

China was late to acknowledge the virus and the human-to-human transmission. It censored doctors who tried to discuss the matter and refused investigations. Independent bloggers who tried to investigate the Wuhan epidemic disappeared. In the months that followed, China’s COVID-19 figures came into question as the statistics didn’t match what was happening in the rest of the world.

Other events that made the world question China’s data followed. One example is the sudden increase in the number of deaths, weeks after the fact. Later, Chinese officials revealed that a massive testing campaign took place in Wuhan, but officials diagnosed just 300 asymptomatic carriers who were not contagious out of 10 million tests. They were also not added to the country’s official count. China isn’t counting asymptomatics even though it has been proven that they can spread the disease.

What’s also surprising is the lack of studies from China that address the emergence of the disease compared to the amount of published work that details other aspects of COVID-19.

China’s new coronavirus origin story

The Spain study was enough for Chinese officials to address it in state-run Global Times, via Yahoo News Australia. The paper ran a story about the WHO visit in China a few days ago, explaining how China is open to researching the origin of the virus. But according to the paper, China believes there needs to be cooperation and negotiation for identifying the origin of the pandemic.

“Identifying the source of the coronavirus must be based on negotiations and involve multiple countries,” China CDC chief epidemiologist Zeng Guang told Global Times. Per the report, Zeng also said that “all evidence on the source must be collected globally, and then be ordered according to when they happened, and then teams must be sent to all the involved countries for scientific identification and research.” But the pandemic started in Wuhan. There’s no way to change that story, no matter how much China dislikes being the source of yet another pandemic. Wuhan was the first epicenter of the disease and it seems likely that would be because Wuhan was the source of the virus in the first place.

Zeng pushed for proper communication to scientifically identify the source of the coronavirus and discussions on the technical methods to research and identify the cause. One could not help but wonder where the communication and discussions were in those early days of December. Or in the weeks that followed, particularly on the fact that the virus was spreading from human to human.

Later in the post, Spain appears as well:

China is only a link in the virus transmission chain, and the WHO has to go to more countries such as Spain, which reported coronavirus in its waste water sample collected in March 2019, for more comprehensive investigations on the virus origin, Wang said.

Wang Guangfa is a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital who was a member of the WHO-China joint team in February that visited Beijing, Wuhan, and the provinces of Guangdong and Sichuan.

The Spain study is yet to be confirmed. Picking and choosing studies, as Chinese officials seem ready to do, is ill-advised. For example, a satellite mapping study showed increased activity in parking lots of several Wuhan hospitals as early as August 2019 that could be consistent with the emergence of an infectious disease in the area. But there’s no definitive proof that’s what happened.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.