An advance team of World Health Organization (WHO) officials arrived in China a few months ago to lay the groundwork for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus.
As with many inquiries, there was initially some skepticism about what it would find – and how much cooperation it would receive from Chinese authorities – whether they are prepared to allow free access to virus research scientists in Wuhan, as well as medical practitioners in Hubei province.
Once the virus began quickly spreading to numerous countries, there were many claims that China was slow in alerting the rest of the world to the threat. Most notably was US President Donald Trump, who has strong motives to continue pointing his finger at China, since his dismissive public response to the virus – even after being infected himself - has badly damaged his chances of winning re-election in November.
There has been a global consensus among scientists (and many wildlife activists) that the coronavirus originated with animals – almost certainly bats.
The initial hypothesis was that the pandemic originated from animals that were eaten at a market in Wuhan where exotic animals were sometimes consumed.
While Chinese officials are also convinced that the disease originates from bats, they have been resentful of the presumption by the WHO inquiry that it definitely originated in China, while some Chinese officials have even portrayed the virus as originating abroad.
Chinese officials have often asserted that "China believes the origin of the virus is a scientific matter that should be studied by scientists and medical professionals." Wang Xining, a Chinese diplomat based in Australia, pointed out that international researchers had not made efforts to identify any other potential origins.
The issue of origin became more confused and confrontational when President Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both claimed without any tangible evidence whatsoever that the virus “escaped” from a Chinese research facility (even implying that China “created” the virus and that the disease emerged weeks before Beijing formally alerted the WHO.
Beijing strongly asserts that such claims are “groundless theories” and that tracing work continues. Virtually no scientists or informed members of the public still believe such conspiracy theories.
According to a report published by The Lancet back in February 2020, a group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China pushed back against the stories Chinese research may have originated the outbreak of COVID-19. “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins,” the scientists, from nine countries, wrote in a statement.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” The Lancet statement said, also praising the work of Chinese health professionals as “remarkable”.
If we consider Beijing’s reaction to this crisis, from when it first surfaced late last year, it appears highly likely that Wuhan and its medical professionals were hit head-on with an epidemic they knew little of and were desperate to contain.
At that stage it was a crisis in the dark – an invisible threat that we now know spreads through the air as well as by touch, but can be largely contained wearing a face mask, regular hand washing and social distancing. Some countries have been successful at encouraging their citizens to act with care and discipline. Others that responded in a more laissez-faire manner, or saw restrictions as an affront to “personal freedoms”, have paid a high price.
China’s leaders attempted to swiftly smother the virus, with the enforcement of a very strict lockdown that was impressively effective – a good lesson in viral containment – although subsequent outbreaks across the world have shown that Covid-19 is a virulent beast likely to be with us in some form and to an unknown degree for years to come.
China also swiftly ramped up production of face masks and protective equipment during the coronavirus spread early this year. As the country got a handle on the runaway outbreak, it also began exporting medical equipment such as ventilators and PPE to many countries. This boosted international goodwill in many countries and helped save many lives.
Considering China’s claims that the coronavirus did not necessarily originate in China, it is interesting to note that in early September UCLA researchers reported that the coronavirus may have begun its spread in the US as early as late December – around the same time as it was detected in China.
Researchers found a 50% increase of patients with coughs and acute respiratory failure in its hospitals and clinics compared to the previous five years, suggesting that the virus could have been circulating months before the U.S. confirmed its first definitive cases. The New York Times has also reported a number of initially undetected outbreaks in other cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Seattle.
In light of this discovery, a claim that originated in China last April, saying that the virus was first brought to China in October by visiting US military now seems less outlandish than when it was first posited, and certainly no less credible than claims by high-ranking US officials.
In any case, hysterical finger pointing and politics aside, such claims are hardly the crux of the matter. Underlying this crisis is a need to recognize that the world now has a huge population – 7.8 billion people – and that we must work harder to ensure our growing numbers don’t encroach on and destroy the very ecosystems that are key to our existence. This has been one of the stronger warnings from top ecologists – that we need to protect nature, or the diseases carried by wild animals in ever closer proximity – will continue to hit all of us, regardless of nationality or politics.
Clearly there is a need for better oversight of essential scientific research, with greater openness on all sides. But unfortunately the coronavirus has emerged at a time when there is enormous mistrust and tension between the superpowers.
And human fallibility has played its part. People make mistakes, and sometimes we select leaders who aren’t fit for the enormous and testing challenges that crop up in times of crisis.
After initial hesitation, China agreed to allow the WHO to visit to try to learn more about the origin of the pandemic. That was a far more cooperative and generous decision than quitting the WHO.
All over the world, scientists are working hard to develop as quickly as possible a vaccine against the coronavirus – with some recent promise. Let us hope that an effective vaccine is not far away.
Humanity will survive this latest test, but the journey is one we must embark on with a sense of unity. If any good is to come from this crisis, it will hopefully be a more profound understanding among populations and governments that we are all in this together.