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Where Did COVID-19 Originate?

Mar 10, 2020
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

The spread of COVID-19 has been accelerating worldwide. As of March 3, cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in 62 countries on five continents, including China.

As of this writing, the Republic of Korea had reported 4,812 infections and 29 deaths. In Japan, the total number of infections had increased to 980, with 12 deaths. Italy reported a jump in the death toll to 52, with 2,036 people infected. In Iran, the virus has claimed 66 lives, with confirmed cases climbing to 1,501.

This outbreak is serious and requires concerted efforts from all countries to curb its spread.

People want to know where the virus came from. It is widely believed that the outbreak originated in an open market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals were sold. This claim, which has been emphasized by some media, is now being questioned and challenged.

On Feb. 28, the World Health Organization held a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, at which Maria van Kerkhove, the technical lead of the WHO’s emergency program for the coronavirus, said that some of the initial cases in December were associated with the South China Seafood Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, but others were not. She added that a paper had suggested that pangolins were intermediate hosts, but details were not clear, so there is still much work to be done to identify animals as intermediate hosts. She admitted that the WHO does not have a precise answer yet, but it is actively pursuing the question.

Michael J. Ryan, another leader of the WHO’s health emergency program, said the source of any disease can be anywhere. He noted that coronaviruses are a global phenomenon — they exist everywhere — and so, when one appears, it will be an unfortunate but natural event. He said understanding of where the virus originated can help bring it under control and prevent it from returning. But that information should not be used to assign blame.

Experts came to realize that the coronavirus had first appeared in China but had not necessarily originated there. That view was shared by Zhong Nanshan, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a high-level expert group leader of China’s National Health and Medical Commission, based on a month of observation of the epidemic in Wuhan. He said people first believed it came from China, but developments in other countries may suggest otherwise.

Scientifically speaking Zhong said, the fact that the coronavirus was first discovered in China does not necessarily mean it originated there. He said that only by careful tracing can an answer be found.

Yet another view is that COVID-19 may have had multiple points of origin during the same period. Yang Zhanqiu, a professor at the Institute of Virology at Wuhan University School of Medicine, told the news media that, the typical pattern of infectious disease outbreaks does not prove that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan. Yang noted that some patients with confirmed COVID-19 in multiple countries had not traveled to China or been exposed to any known Chinese patient. This supports the possibility that COVID-19 may have had multiple points of origin in the same period, he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said recently that an elderly Japanese couple had contracted COVID-19 after traveling to Hawaii. They had nothing to do with China.

On Feb. 21, Japan’s Asahi TV reported that 36 million people in the United States had been affected by a type of flu, with the and the number of deaths reaching 14,000 (the number has now risen to 16,000). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Feb.14 that the specific virus had not been identified for some of these cases and that some patients may have been infected by COVID-19. Responding to the Asahi TV report on Feb. 22, the CDC said that, so far, there is no evidence to support such speculation.

According to Italian media reports, the first COVID-19 patient in the country has been identified. Before he was diagnosed with the virus, he had participated in a number of activities involving large groups of people, including a 10,000-person marathon, football matches and dinners with friends. These contacts led to the infection of 50,000 people in 10 cities within half a month. He was confirmed infected during a vacation in Hawaii.

Of course, some claims cannot be confirmed. For example, a U.S. researcher recently said that he had found an artificial element in the virus during a case study in the United States. He argued that the element cannot not have existed in any wild animal and was inserted into the virus in a laboratory. This allegation has also been rejected by some experts.
From our current position, the origin of the virus remains unclear, and medical professionals and scientists need to work hard to find it. It is irresponsible to politicize the problem or assign blame.

Viruses know no borders, and we live in a global village. To respond to the current epidemic, people worldwide need to work together. In China, people may disagree about the origin of COVID-19, but they do have a basic consensus: Efforts to identify the source of the virus should not be undertaken to blame and stigmatize a country but to subdue this threat to humanity as soon as possible. The whole world should join in this view.

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