Doctor and activist

COVID-19 Origin of the Pandemic 19/4/20

There has been a general acceptance that the COVID19 coronavirus came from the Wuhan Seafood market from some of the wild animals there, with a pangolin, a type of scaly anteater.  It was a wet market which means that species are sold there raw.  This seemed more plausible than the various conspiracy theories that it was a biological weapon either gone feral or an error.

I tended to discount these conspiracy theories, but stuff ups are more frequent than conspiracies and the evidence for one of the latter is actually quite strong.

There are two viral research facilities in Wuhan. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is one of the best in China, rated BSL-4 (Biological Security Level-4).  It was 9 miles (15km) from the Wuhan Seafood Market and was doing research on SARS viruses since 2011 after the epidemic in 2004.  It collected virus specimens from bat caves 1100 miles (1770km) away, and the energetic chief scientist, Dr Shi Zengli was known as the ‘Bat Woman’ because of her enthusiasm to collect specimens over the last 16 years.  They were doing research on bat coronaviruses including infecting piglets, and were hiring staff, publishing papers and testing disinfectants for the virus.   Some US experts were concerned about the level of safety as chimeric SARS like viruses develop easily, i.e. minor changes to the viral structure which give a different mutation. 

When the first patient specimen was given to the laboratory on 30/12/19, Dr Shi was very concerned that it may have escaped  from her lab, and allegedly tested the genome sequence and found that it was not the same as the one that she was working on.

But there was another virology lab in Wuhan, the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, (WCDC) which was only 300 metres from the market, and was only rated BSL-2. A researcher from there, Dr Botao Xiao, who had previously worked in the US postulated that the genome sequence was very similar to one that was being studied in WCDC.  His paper was taken down from the web, and his profile was also deleted from the WCDC website.  WCDC had also done experiments on bats and surgery on live animals.  It was pointed out that as it was winter, bats hibernate, so the likelihood of an animal infection getting to the market from the bat colony by natural migration was small.  So the possibilities exist either that some animals from the research facility went to the markets, perhaps sold for extra cash, as this had previously occurred, or there was a staff person infected, as there had been staff who had self-quarantined twice in the past after concerns that there had been a breach of infection control protocols.

Security in research laboratories does fail at times such as the escape of Smallpox in Birmingham UK in 1978, which led to a staff fatality and the suicide of the lab’s director. A SARS virus leak in Beijing in 2004 was also documented. There are figures on the risk of escape of Potential Pandemic Pathogens (PPPs).  It is rare, but remains possible.

A visiting US team at WIV was concerned at the level of training at WIV.  It may have been lower at the lower-rated WCDC.

Chinese social media claimed that Huang Yanling, a researcher at WIV was Patient Zero. This was denied by WIV and her posture and profile is missing from the website and she herself cannot be found. 

Ai Fen, a top director and Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan General Hospital posted information re the infection on 30/12/19.  Dr Li Wenliang was initially made to admit that he had ‘lied’ but later died of the virus and was called a ‘martyr’ by the Chinese Communist Party, a high honour. 

Chinese scientists mapped the genome of the virus by 2/1/20, announced it on 9/1/20 and published it on 11/1/20.  On 20/1/20, they announced that person to person transmission can occur.  Wuhan, with 11 million people was locked down from late January.

SARSCoV2, the virus that causes COVID19 has mutations that make it good at binding to humans, primates, ferrets, pigs, cats and pangolins (scaly anteaters).  It may have escaped by an infected animal, and it may have spread in the market among the animals before it infected humans.

So how did China handle the outbreak?  Initially it denied there was a problem, as shown in its treatment of the whistle-blowers, and the ‘disappearance’ (?death) of the alleged Patient Zero.  They also denied person to person transmission until quite late and offended researchers by discovering the genome sequence on 2/1/20,  but not actually publishing it until 9 days later.

They then did a very thorough lock-down as they had had experience of SARS and were very conscious of how an epidemic could spread.

In short, the Chinese probably leaked the virus accidentally, tried to cover up, realised that this was not possible and took very strong action locally and nationally.  The initial denial allowed time for more spread, and the outbreaks in Iran and Italy may have been due to Chinese workers on the Belt and Road infrastructure programme spreading the virus.  The conspiracy theorists are probably wrong, and the Chinese denials did not help, but the denial of the problem by Western governments even after the WHO had made the situation clear is just as responsible for the epidemics in their own countries.

Having a world witch-hunt to publicise the information above is unlikely to be helpful.  Stuff ups are more common than conspiracies, and China’s management once it had identified a problem seems as good or better than anyone else’s. If they have actually largely conquered the virus, and if their economy then starts to one of the first to recover, Australia’s exports may get an earlier boost than was expected which will help our recovery.  Why Australia wants to be first in the queue to criticise China is not clear.  It is not in our interest.  To state the obvious, governments collectively have been slow to recognise the danger of a pandemic as there had not been one for a century, and they will know better next time.

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Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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