- Citing an increasing number of instances where the novel coronavirus has been detected on frozen food, as well as studies that say the virus has been spreading in Europe much earlier than believed, a Chinese state-run paper wonders whether the Wuhan pandemic started outside of China.
- Some Chinese health officials reportedly entertain the idea that the Wuhan outbreak might have started with imported frozen food, but they have no data to back it up.
The novel coronavirus’s first birthday has arrived, as the first known COVID-19 patient in Wuhan dates back to November 17th, 2019, according to data from the country. In all that time, China has never offered an official timeline of the Wuhan outbreak. We still don’t know how the first patient or group of people got infected. The World Health Organization’s planned investigation will take some time. It’s worth pointing out that WHO officials have not been allowed in Wuhan, and Chinese researchers will visit ground zero in the upcoming phase of the investigation.
China initially pointed to the Wuhan market as the source of the virus, then said in later remarks that the market was just a victim of the outbreak. China also defended against accusations that the virus was created in a lab or accidentally escaped from one. The country already attempted to suggest that the pandemic might have started elsewhere, blaming it on the US at one point. Spain also came up on China’s radar due to one study that said the virus had been detected in sewage samples dating back to March 2019. But China has now shifted to a story that might make more sense. “Was the Wuhan outbreak caused by imported frozen products?” a story in one of China’s state-sponsored papers asks.
China has found live coronavirus on frozen food packaging a number of times, and experiments have shown that the virus can survive in dark, cold places for days. This makes fomite transmission a theoretical risk, but still a minimal one.
Given the massive coronavirus surges that have happened in most countries so far this year, the chances of detecting coronavirus-laden droplets on frozen food packaging are probably higher than ever. There are probably people who don’t respect health measures or disregard them intentionally while at work. The chances of someone getting infected with the novel coronavirus before November 2019, then sneezing or coughing on frozen food packed for shipping to China, only to spark a major outbreak, are probably insignificant. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it just sounds like a massive stretch of the imagination. Granted, people in western countries were not wearing masks before the pandemic, and nobody was searching for this particular pathogen actively as it happens now.
The new report in state-run Global Times links the reportedly increasing number of instances of coronavirus traces on frozen food with studies that indicate the virus was spreading in Europe before December 2019. Aside from the Spanish study, researchers from Italy showed that the virus was already infecting people in the country as early as September 2019. The paper now says that the four Italians god coronavirus antibodies in early October 2019, “much earlier than the discovery of infected cases in Wuhan.” China has never provided a clear date of the first COVID-19 infections in Wuhan.
The paper says that experts think that frozen food can get people infected, citing cases where “patients zero” infections were tracked to frozen food packaging. China has never mentioned any details about the Wuhan “patients zero” so far.
“In the past, when we did virus tracing, we’ve always been looking for intermediate hosts, highly likely an animal. It may be time to re-examine whether the outbreak in Wuhan started from one infected person or contaminated food,” deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University Yang Zhanqiu told the Chinese paper.
In the past, China has never mentioned any details about its Wuhan coronavirus investigations.
A different expert told the Global Times that the possibility that the Wuhan epidemic was caused by imported frozen food could not be ruled out. Even a China CDC official chimed in. “Growing evidence showed frozen seafood or meat may have introduced the virus from the epidemic-affected countries into China,” the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Wu Zunyou told a different Chinese paper.
Interestingly, Wu also revealed that COVID-19 patients were concentrated among frozen seafood vendors at the Wuhan market. That’s the kind of detail that we had not heard of before. Again, China has never explained the Wuhan outbreak in full detail. Just as the Italian study says the virus was circulating as early as September 2019, there’s a study that shows intensified activity in Wuhan hospitals around the same time. An infectious disease could explain those surges.
The paper hedges its premise by saying that Chinese experts can’t offer a clear conclusion “because although primary evidence showed similarities between the viral sequences of the Wuhan outbreaks and those found overseas, so far no direct evidence can verify the infection link.”
The various geneticists who have been tracking the genetic changes of the coronavirus looking for mutations could easily provide additional answers. They could explain the evolution of the virus and whether the Wuhan strain evolved into the D614G mutation that’s now dominant around the world, or whether it was the other way around. Unless they already did — from a study published in Cell in August:
The Spike D614G amino acid change is caused by an A-to-G nucleotide mutation at position 23,403 in the Wuhan reference strain; it was the only site identified in our first Spike variation analysis in early March 2020 that met our threshold criterion. At that time, the G614 form was rare globally but gaining prominence in Europe, and GISAID was also tracking the clade carrying the D614G substitution, designating it the “G clade.” […]
Prior to March 1, 2020, it was found in 10% of 997 global sequences; between March 1 and March 31, 2020, it represented 67% of 14,951 sequences; and between April 1 and May 18, 2020 (the last data point available in our May 29, 2020 sample), it represented 78% of 12,194 sequences. The transition from D614 to G614 occurred asynchronously in different regions throughout the world, beginning in Europe, followed by North America and Oceania, and then Asia.
The evidence indicates that the Wuhan strain mutated into D614G after arriving in Europe and the US, and then became the dominant version. Other studies detail the same evolution of the virus since Wuhan. Chinese researchers will need similar studies to prove that the Wuhan strain came from elsewhere. Frozen food packaging theories might not be enough.