Where did the coronavirus come from? A WHO expert group wants to research the origins of the pandemic in China. That should not be easy: the government in Beijing is more interested in politicization than in gaining knowledge. A year after the corona pandemic broke out, Chinese propaganda is trying to rewrite history. In the face of more than 1.5 million deaths worldwide, China does not want to be denounced as a culprit in a politically heated climate. “Even if China was the first to report the corona virus, that does not necessarily mean that the virus also originated in China,” said Foreign Office spokesman Zhao Lijian. China is more likely to be portrayed as a possible victim. There is no longer any talk of bats and wildlife trade as the origin. Rather, state media refer to unconfirmed reports of possible Sars-CoV-2 infections in other countries even before the first cases were discovered in the central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan in early December 2019. Traces of the virus were also found on a pork knuckle from Germany and other imported frozen goods. It is disputed whether these traces are sufficient for infection. Nevertheless, the party organ “People’s Daily” writes with reference to “all available evidence” that the frozen food chains could be to blame: “Covid-19 did not start in Wuhan.”
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“It is really difficult that it is so politicized,” says Fabian Leendertz from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). The epidemiologist is to investigate the origins of the virus with a group of experts on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO). A trip to China is also planned. “When it will start has not yet been determined,” says Leendertz, who researches infectious diseases that occur in humans and animals alike. The experts are currently exchanging information remotely with colleagues in China. “We assume that we start where the most solid evidence is available – and that is still this market and Wuhan itself,” says Leendertz. “We all know it probably didn’t start there.” Because not all of the first infections were traced back to the Huanan market in Wuhan.
However, many traces of the corona virus were found in the area of the wild animal stands. “There are strong suspicions that the epidemic is related to the wildlife trade,” wrote China’s state agency Xinhua in late January. Shortly afterwards, the government banned the often dirty business of wild animals that are consumed as delicacies in China. The WHO experts want to work their way back from the market in time. “And then we see where the trail leads us. Whether it stays in China or whether it leads outside of China,” says Leendertz. “It’s a very open approach.” The RKI expert tries to keep expectations low. “We’re not going to fly to China somehow now, as we put on our superhero suits, catch a few bats and start wiping the market and scurrying through hospitals,” says Leendertz. “That is of course very different.” It is more about checking with the Chinese colleagues to see which leads should still be followed. “That will be the maximum.”
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However, the researcher is confident that the origin of the virus will be found “sometime”. “It will probably be the original host, a bat,” says Leendertz. Then you have to see what species it is, where it occurs and whether another animal was involved as an intermediate host. “The virus’ closest relatives, but not the origin of the virus, have been found in bats in southern China.” Because of the mild symptoms, however, it will be “difficult or even impossible” to identify the first infection, ie “patient zero”. With US President Donald Trump speaking of the “China virus”, wanting to “hold Beijing accountable” and calling for compensation, the search for the source has also become a search for the culprit. But Leendertz rejects this way of thinking: “We humans are constantly infected with viruses and bacteria from the animal kingdom.” That happens everywhere. “It is not the fault of China or any other country that a virus from the bat or another animal has probably spread to humans,” says Leendertz. “It’s hard to prevent.”
Nevertheless, China’s propaganda uses misleading tricks. Suddenly, even the German virologist Alexander Kekulé was tried to support the thesis that “Wuhan is not the starting point for the pandemic,” as China’s state television quoted him. The expert only pointed out that the origin was in China and that the mutation of the virus found in Italy had spread worldwide. On Twitter, Kekulé clarified: “The coronavirus pandemic started in China and the outbreak may even have been initially covered up.”
There is no doubt that the initial response from the Wuhan authorities was insufficient, which even Chinese officials have admitted. Because of this, some of those responsible had to vacate their posts. Warnings from doctors of a puzzling new respiratory disease or a possible return of the 2002/03 Sars virus were ignored in the late December days. Some were even silenced. It was also officially claimed until January 21 that there was “no human-to-human transmission”, although doctors had already experienced such infections in December.
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“It’s safe to say that they handled the outbreak badly,” says health expert Huang Yanzhong of the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). If a new type of virus breaks out, however, mistakes would be made, even if some could have been avoided. “We should be fair to China,” says Huang Yanzhong. Other countries like the USA have also made mistakes. He points out how Trump and his administration downplayed the pandemic. “That is the same.” In his opinion, the thesis of the imported virus is “politically motivated”. “It also serves the purpose of absolving China of responsibility for the pandemic,” says the expert. The search for the origins should actually be scientifically neutral, but politically sensitive. That bodes “badly” for the WHO mission. In any case, the UN organization is criticized for being too on the side of China, which as an important member also has a lot of influence. The leadership in Beijing has already set the tone, says China expert Huang Yanzhong. “I don’t think they will let the outcome of the investigation call their narrative into question.” In the end, the WHO experts could diplomatically refer to China as the known starting point of the pandemic, but add that the virus could also have come from elsewhere, which needs further investigation. “That would make China happy,” says Huang Yanzhong. “I don’t think we will have a really conclusive result that can be accepted by all actors.”
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