By Samantha Swank
Following a required 14-day quarantine in a hotel January, 17 World Health Organization (WHO) researchers collaborated for two weeks with Chinese researchers on an investigation that analyzed the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus which to date, has infected more than 110 million people and killed nearly 2.5 million globally.
A disproportionate number of novel infectious illnesses have originated from China, likely due to several of its cities’ biodiverse and dense populations of animals and people with close contact between them. This allows infections to jump from animals to humans and spread within the community much more easily than in other areas.
Explanations for whether the virus came from China has floated about in national and international discourses since the outbreak began and grew especially politicized once the United States suffered its first cases and lockdowns.
Former president Donald Trump insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus” and perpetuated theories that it had originated in a Chinese lab, without evidence. In response, the Chinese government has claimed that the infection could have come from elsewhere and spread to China via frozen meat or other goods, meaning it simply first had been detected there rather than originated.
Politicization of the pandemic has contributed directly to the escalation in Asian-American discrimination and hate crimes against them over the past year–most recently and visibly in the Bay Area of California. It has also muddled attempts to scientifically and unbiasedly establish the origins of the virus.
The research team has highlighted two theories in particular that the Chinese government has pushed, both of which assert that the virus didn’t originate in China. While wholly plausible, it’s less likely that the virus came from elsewhere, and unless the team had accessed unpublished data suggesting otherwise, it is uncertain why they chose to highlight these theories if the investigation didn’t drastically change their conclusion supporting the widely adopted theory of the virus jumping from bats to humans within Chinese borders.
The team has also faced barriers to accessing the kind of data crucial to the investigation. Blood samples from donation banks–that would be analyzed for clues of the virus–have instead only been summarized, and samples withheld though the reason why are still unclear. They were also denied access to anonymized medical records and to the data used by Chinese officials to conclude that the outbreak had not started earlier than December 2019.
Evidence suggests that the virus may have already been in the United States during this time, and that it had spread much more broadly in Wuhan than a December origin would have caused. The WHO researchers found that several strains were already circulating in Wuhan and estimated that at least a thousand cases had likely occurred by the time the outbreak was announced.
The first community-transmitted case in the U.S. was reported in Solano County, California, toward the end of last February, although the CDC has noted that it was likely spreading between people by the beginning of that month.
New York City became the first in the United States to suffer a severe outbreak that rapidly overwhelmed hospitals and morgues the spring of 2020. A second, more widespread summer wave hit several states fairly hard while sparing others. And the most recent winter wave overwhelmed hospitals nationwide; during its peak, more than 300,000 new daily cases and 4,000 new daily deaths were being reported.
The ubiquity of rapid travel from country to country via airplane has globalized infectious diseases in a manner that make them extraordinarily difficult to control without rapid international response: an outbreak in one country can spread to another within hours or days, and then from there spread to other new regions and so on, undetected.
China since has been criticized for its opaqueness in the first several months of the outbreak, in which they silenced whistleblowers distributing information about the virus. It has also been criticized for its initial secrecy with the viral genome, which the Chinese government withheld for nearly two weeks after its first announcement on Dec. 31, 2019.
During the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in the early 2000s, the Chinese government withheld information about a deadly outbreak several months before acknowledging the emergence of a new virus. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, eventually spread to more than two dozen regions, including Canada and Singapore, where more than 8,000 total cases were reported, and nearly 800 died. China was heavily criticized for its secrecy with public health data that likely would have prevented the outbreak from spreading.
In November 2019, a month and a half before the announcement of the novel Coronavirus infections, two patients with pneumonic plague–a cousin of the bubonic plague caused by the same bacteria that infects the lungs rather than the lymphatic system–presented to a Beijing hospital and ignited fears of an outbreak. Though the infection was contained, criticisms over the government’s lag in public disclosure arose.
Both political and nonpolitical parties have expressed concern over a similar lag in reporting the novel 2019 coronavirus to the World Health Organization, a requirement under International Health Regulations. The United States and other governments have since ordered independent reviews of the recent WHO research, citing distrust of the Chinese government’s involvement in the investigation given its past of silencing whistleblowers to novel diseases and
Despite this, some believe that although the investigation still requires follow-up because of its brevity and data gaps, it will serve as a crucial foundation between China and the WHO that will foster future collaboration on a more thorough examination of the virus’ origins and consequently more transparency in reporting future outbreaks.