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Origins of the Coronavirus

Feb 08, 2021
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

A team of international scientists from the World Health Organization arrived in China on Jan. 14. Their mission: To study the origins of the coronavirus in partnership with their Chinese counterparts.

China has been an ardent supporter and participant in international efforts to combat the pandemic and identify its origins. It was the first country to report COVID-19 infections and the first to share the virus’s genome sequence with the wider international community. In addition, it worked with WHO experts on a joint mission to learn about the virus in Wuhan in early 2020 and released the findings in a timely manner. All these efforts won the applause of the WHO and most countries around the world.

In the West, however, some media reports were misleading, as they misinterpreted and even willfully and unfairly found fault with China’s stance on the pandemic. For example, after the WHO’s international team of scientists arrived in China, The New York Times claimed in an editorial titled “The World Deserves Answers From China” that China lacked transparency about the coronavirus and hindered international efforts to determine where the virus originated. Also, it said that just getting into China took the WHO team more than a year, and that when it finally reached Wuhan, China promptly planted more obstacles in its way.

These allegations are groundless. Many factors can explain why the WHO experts came to China one year after the outbreak. One critical reason is that, given the alarming spread of the virus worldwide, the immediate priority of the WHO in 2020 was to coordinate and guide the global response.

Tracing the origins of the coronavirus is a complex and sensitive task, on top of being a serious scientific issue. Conclusions must be made by scientists and medical experts on the basis of science and fact. This issue should not be politicized. Nor should it be used to stigmatize or pressure a country to pay compensation for the outbreak. A few countries’ insistence on carrying out “independent investigations” in China has disrupted the WHO’s efforts to probe the origins of the virus. 

Of the 15 members in the WHO team, two were stranded in Singapore because they tested positive in a standard nucleic acid test. Upon arrival in China, the remaining 13 were placed in quarantine for 14 days — an arrangement that applies to all inbound visitors for the sake of public health security.

While in quarantine, members of the mission conducted video calls with each other and with Chinese scientists, and they began their field visits as soon as their quarantine ended. In fact, the team expressed their gratitude to China on many occasions for its active support and collaboration.

Obviously, The New York Times made a biased and unfair allegation when it said that China immediately “planted more obstacles in its way” when the team arrived.

It has been reported that scientists have found that the coronavirus was discovered in various places in Europe, the United States and Latin America as early as the fall of 2019. Most of the known cases were dated to November and December 2019, as the virus broke out around that time in Wuhan, with some cases even a bit earlier than those in Wuhan.

The discovery of the virus in multiple places around the world is of great significance for traceability and effective pandemic control. These discoveries were reported in the media virtually everywhere.

In the ongoing global effort to trace the origins of the coronavirus, it is relevant to take a look at some of the examples that have been reported.

• Reuters, Nov. 15: COVID-19 has been in Italy since September 2019.

• Agencia EFE, July 2: Brazil finds coronavirus in wastewater samples collected in November 2019.

• La Repubblica, Dec.9: Scientists in Italy detected the novel coronavirus in a boy’s throat secretions, suggesting the virus’s presence in the country as early as November 2019.

• RIA Novosti, June 30: 110 suspected coronavirus cases were detected in Italy in November 2019.

• EL PAIS, June 20: Sewage water from two cities in December 2019 contained coronavirus traces.

• Reuters, May 4: A French hospital treated a man who had COVID-19 as early as December 2019.

• LiveScience, Dec.1: American blood samples from December 2019 tested positive for antibodies against the coronavirus.

When it comes to the tracing the coronavirus, media attention has been directed to a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, in the United States. According to reports, in July 2019 this lab was shut down by the CDC after the leak of a hazardous substance. The following month, a massive “flu” broke out in the country, claiming more than 10,000 lives.

Although it was labeled “pneumonia linked to vaping” in the United States, that’s hard to justify the naming. E-cigarettes have never caused an epidemic, let alone a pandemic, since they hit the shelves in the U.S. and around the world 15 years ago.

If the U.S. truly respects facts, it should open the Fort Detrick biolab, provide more transparency for its 200-plus overseas labs, invite WHO experts to conduct origin-tracing in the United States, and respond to the concerns of the international community with meaningful action, said a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on January 18.

The coronavirus is the enemy of all mankind and continues to rage across the globe. China believes that in the face of this ferocious enemy, it is imperative for all parties to abandon ideological stereotypes and politicization and engage in active and results-oriented cooperation with the WHO in tracing the origins of the virus. It that way, humanity can secure a victory in the fight against at an earlier date.

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