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China is already changing its coronavirus origin story

Published May 27th, 2020 1:14PM EDT
Coronavirus Origin Study
Image: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock

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  • The coronavirus origin story just changed, as China confirmed the wet market in Wuhan wasn’t the source of COVID-19.
  • The news comes from the country’s top epidemiologist expert and follows a separate denial from the Wuhan lab officials who reiterated the coronavirus had not escaped from the facility, and the pathogens researched at the institute do not resemble SARS-CoV-2.
  • China hasn’t provided a new explanation, and the world may never identify COVID-19 Patient Zero.

Who was the first patient infected with the novel coronavirus? That’s something China failed has to address so far, and the lack of an answer is what helped fuel conspiracy theories that the virus had been engineered in a lab and somehow escaped. The official story used to be that animals from the Wuhan wet market helped pass COVID-19 to humans and that the virus originated in a bat. Scientists were able to prove beyond any doubt that the virus did indeed evolve naturally, and we’ve had this data for months now. A few weeks ago, top US intelligence officials confirmed they agree with the general scientific consensus that the virus couldn’t have been made by man. But that still left the possibility that the virus escaped a research facility in Wuhan city, where the virus could have been studied.

China has repeatedly denied such claims, reiterating just a few days ago that none of the bat viruses that Wuhan researchers study are related to SARS-CoV-2. But, interestingly enough, China seems ready to admit that the novel coronavirus didn’t originate from the Wuhan wet market either. Where was the first person infected? We might never truly know the deadly virus’s origin story.

Wang Yanyi, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told China Central Television over the weekend that the novel coronavirus is significantly different from the live pathogens that have been studied in the lab, and there’s no chance it could have escaped from that facility. As much as China would like the world to believe these claims, the government never allowed independent researchers to attempt to trace the origin’s virus, and that could have included an inspection of the institute.

China has seen plenty of criticism lately not just because of its inability or unwillingness to share data about Patient Zero, but also for the way it managed the crisis in the early weeks after the new coronavirus was discovered. Trump has been one of the most vocal critics of China, with the Hong Kong crisis further fueling his stance even though he praised the country in the past for the way it handled the epidemic. Other countries chimed in, with Australia being the latest example of a country demanding an investigation, which angered the Beijing government even more.

Aside from attempting to dispel the notion that the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan lab, China made unexpected statements this week about the origin of the virus, per The Wall Street Journal. The country’s top epidemiologist said on Tuesday that testing samples from the Wuhan wet market failed to show links between animals sold there and the pathogen. “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims,” Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Gao Fu told Chinese state media.

These remarks can’t be enough to calm anyone still criticizing China, as they don’t help address the actual origin of the virus. China has made incredible efforts to fight the infection, even though it wasn’t exactly straightforward about it from the start. Just this week, news emerged that China conducted a massive testing campaign in Wuhan, testing some 6.5 million people in only 2 weeks. The goal of the campaign is to prevent a second wave in the region. Such efforts indicate that China might have the resources to trace the origin of COVID-19 as accurately as possible.

Similar efforts are underway in other countries where researchers have looked back in time for undiagnosed COVID-19 patients. A series of stories from America and Europe revealed in the past few weeks that SARS-CoV-2 landed on both continents much earlier than believed. A patient in Washington state was infected with the novel virus as early as mid-December. The first COVID-19 death occurred early in February at the latest, several weeks before what was believed to be the first COVID-19 victim in America.

Doctors in France established that COVID-19 patients were coming to the emergency room as early as mid-November in northern regions, and in late December in Paris. These are indications that community spreading was happening in Europe much earlier than believed. Independent research from Italian scientists proved that the disease could have started spreading in the region as early as January, if not even earlier than that.

The actual Patient Zero might never be found, but a more complete origin story that could put an end to conspiracy theories could still be uncovered.

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.