Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 26 November 2020



Chinese media step up campaign to muddy probe into Covid origins

A police officer stands guard outside of Huanan Seafood Wholesale market where the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan in January © AFP via Getty Images

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Chinese state media are marshalling fringe theories to argue that the coronavirus pandemic began outside China, ahead of a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the virus.

People’s Daily, the official Chinese Communist party newspaper, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that “all available evidence” suggested the virus “did not start in central China’s Wuhan”, citing Chinese experts.

The post follows a series of statements from Chinese officials and scientists that have sought to cast doubt on the belief that Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, first made the jump to humans within China.

These clues all point to imported cold chain seafood being the outbreak’s origin

Wu Zunyou, China’s Centre for Disease Control

One idea being promoted is that the virus was brought to Wuhan by frozen foods or their packaging and its spread was merely amplified in a local market.

“If we think back to the early outbreak in Wuhan at the start of the year, the patients from Huanan seafood market were concentrated in the frozen seafood section,” Wu Zunyou, a leading epidemiologist at China’s Centre for Disease Control, told Beijing News this month.

“These clues all point to imported cold chain seafood being the outbreak’s origin.”

China has been an outlier in claiming that frozen foods and their packaging represent a serious threat in seeding outbreaks of Covid-19.

Scientists have found some evidence that the virus can remain active in cold environments for long periods of time, but experts outside of China agree overwhelmingly that cold chain transportation represents a negligible risk of causing infections.

It is widely believed that Sars-Cov-2 originated in horseshoe bats after scientists identified a strain of the virus that is a close genetic match to the one found in humans. But how and where it made the jump to humans remains a mystery.

“Everything is still very fuzzy, very unclear,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for public health at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York. 

China maintains that it is open to an investigation into the origins of the virus. However, the first team sent by the World Health Organization to establish guidelines for later studies failed to visit Wuhan, drawing criticism from US diplomats.

The plan adopted by the WHO’s investigation into the origins appears to be in line with China’s official position that the source could well be outside Wuhan, he said. Details of the global study were released this month. 

On Monday, Michael Ryan, the WHO Health Emergencies Programme executive director, said that the team should start the search in Wuhan and follow the evidence from there.

“While there was most certainly a temporal and geographic cluster associated with the market, not all cases in that initial cluster can be linked directly to the market,” he said.

The remarks were widely circulated in Chinese media, often omitting his assertion that the probe needed to focus first on Wuhan. 

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China’s efforts to suggest that the virus originated outside the country threaten to worsen already frayed ties with the US in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency. Mr Trump has been a frequent critic of the WHO, which he accuses of being too deferential to China.

Mr Huang fears that there could be further politicisation of the process that will make it harder for “an independent, transparent and thorough investigation with results that can be accepted by all involved parties”.

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