Nearly a year after doctors identified the first cases of a worrying new disease in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the country appears to be stepping up a campaign to question the origins of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
State media has been reporting intensively on coronavirus discovered on packaging of frozen food imports, not considered a significant vector of infection elsewhere, and research into possible cases of the disease found outside China’s borders before December 2019.
The official People’s Daily newspaper claimed in a Facebook post last week that “all available evidence suggests that the coronavirus did not start in central China’s Wuhan”.
“Wuhan was where the coronavirus was first detected but it was not where it originated,” it quoted Zeng Guang, formerly a chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying. A foreign ministry spokesman, asked about state media reports that the virus originated outside China, said only that it was important to distinguish between where Covid-19 was first detected and where it crossed the species barrier to infect humans.
Chinese scientists have even submitted a paper for publication to the Lancet – although it has not yet been peer-reviewed – that claims “Wuhan is not the place where human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission first happened”, suggesting instead that the first case may have been in the “Indian subcontinent”.
Claims that the virus had origins outside China are given little credence by western scientists. Michael Ryan, director of the health emergencies programme at the World Health Organization (WHO), said last week that it would be “highly speculative” to argue that the disease did not emerge in China. “It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,” he told a news briefing in Geneva.
Since recovering from the devastation of its own initial outbreak, China has sought to bolster its standing abroad with medical aid.
It is now also promoting several vaccines it has in late-stage development as part of its contribution to the “global good”, offering help with manufacturing and funding immunisation drives. But resentment at Beijing’s role in unleashing the pandemic may ultimately prove harder for China to tackle than the disease itself.
“China is still struggling to deal with the fact that it is held responsible for the “original sin” of the outbreak, which undercuts virtually every effort to salvage its image,” said Andrew Small, a China scholar and senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a US thinktank.
“Recent months have shown what a catastrophic impact the pandemic has had for China in international public opinion.”
He does not think there is any doubt in the minds of senior Chinese leadership about the origin of the virus, and sees the focus on reporting possible alternative origins as a propaganda campaign.
China’s questioning of the origin of the virus in Wuhan might be more credible if it was supporting an independent investigation into the disease, but instead authorities have repeatedly proved obstructive.
WHO investigators who visited Wuhan earlier this year were not able to visit the food market linked to the initial outbreak. A new team is expected to head to China soon to build on initial work by a Chinese team, but they still don’t have a date for travel, with the WHO saying only that they will travel “in due time”.
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