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It is now a year that a call was made, including at the World Health Organisation (WHO),  for an international investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19, how it jumped to humans from an yet to be identified zoonotic source and when and where its human-to-human transmission started.  China had initially opposed such a demand when it was made officially at the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) in May 2020. Later, when it realised that an overwhelming majority of member countries supported the move, China quickly changed gear and took on the mantle of one of the sponsor countries of the resolution. It was a clever move, also intended at influencing the tone and tenor of the resolution. 

President Xi Jinping who spoke at the WHA even acknowledged that there was a need for such an investigation. At the same time, he maintained that first priority should be given to containing the disease, and went on to assure that his country would cooperate with the inquiry when the situation was conducive. However, no significant progress could be made even during the 73rd WHA meeting held in November 2020 as confusion continued to prevail on issues like the constitution of the investigation team and its terms of reference.

Finally, when the WHO investigation team was all set to reach China in the first week of this month, China dropped another bombshell. It blocked the arrival of the team saying that their visa approval process was not complete. In fact, two of the team members were already in transit on their way to China at the time! 

The million dollar question that was being asked in several quarters appeared pertinent once again : Is China afraid of such an investigation? That too, after almost every scientist who has studied the genome sequence data of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has been of the view that the virus did not appear to have been made in a laboratory. Then, can China blame those who ask whether or not the country was trying to hide some inconvenient truths?

Facts or Speculation? 

When the outbreak was first reported in Wuhan at the end of 2019, it was widely believed that the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in the city was the place where the virus jumped to humans from a zoonotic source.  The main reason for this inference was that the earliest patients who reported with COVID-19 symptoms at Wuhan hospitals in December 2019 all had some association with the market. And, the market sells a large variety of exotic animals, many of which are not considered culinary delights outside the region. The possibility of some of those otherwise wild animals being the possible carriers of the novel coronavirus could not be ruled out.   

The possibility of an intern at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) passing on the disease to her boyfriend and he, in turn, infecting others in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market was another hypothesis that had gained currency in the initial days of the outbreak. That the market is situated not very far away from WIV added credence to this view. Even as the Chinese authorities have dismissed this as hearsay, the fact remains that they continue to maintain that they have not been able to identify the very first index case of the Covid-19 saga.  

It is no secret that the Chinese have engaged in coronavirus-related studies at WIV. After the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, that too originated in China, and also caused by a coronavirus, related research and a surveillance system with US funding were put in place in 2005. Scientists have also not discarded the possibility of an unspecified, but small volume of coronaviruses stored in WIV for studies escaping from its labs infecting people. That includes samples collected by scientists from discarded mines and other caves in the southwestern Yunnan province and stored at the facility for research. It may be recalled that US officials who had visited WIV in the past had pointed out inadequacies in safety and security mechanisms in place there. 

Besides scientific research involving viruses that were being held at WIV that is in public knowledge, there have been unverified reports about the Chinese government engaging in secret research involving coronavirus to develop biological weapons. Though China has consistently denied the existence of any such weapons projects at WIV, the general feeling has been that the matter needs to be investigated further. That some purportedly confidential documents on the issue have surfaced recently has added thrust to such demands.  

Chinese Narrative 

When Covid-19 first broke out in China in December 2019, the authorities there did not think twice before claiming that the novel coronavirus did not originate in Wuhan, but it only happened to emerge there. They asserted that the virus would have reached China undetected from some other country on humans or on some unidentified material.  Since then one could observe a concerted effort on their part to establish this narrative. 

As the virus outbreak was still not under control in China, some studies, that included even those led by foreign academics or institutions, argued that the virus outbreak could have happened in parts of China south of Wuhan months before it ‘emerged’ the Hubei capital. How these academics could access material to support their arguments at the time is anybody’s guess. For example, a study by some scientists from Cambridge University suggested that patients with Covid-19 symptoms had approached hospitals in cities south of China earlier than December 2019. Publications that carried news of the report had vaguely suggested that it was hinting at the southern province of Guangdong, from where thousands of people cross daily to and from the bordering Hong Kong metropolis. 

A study analysing satellite images of increased traffic on roads leading to hospitals and at hospital parking lots, and internet searches by people using keywords related Covid-19 symptoms led to a Harvard Medical School study concluding that the coronavirus outbreak might have happened in China well before December 2019.  Though the media focussing on developments in China had carried reports on such studies, the global scientific community did not seem to pay any serious attention to them. 

This followed reports about several athletes from different countries who competed in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019 contracting the virus during the event. China actually used the opportunity to shift the focus of accusations to other countries. 

When criticism from the United States turned strident, China alleged that some of the already infected US soldiers who participated in the Military World Games would have brought the disease to the city. Later, when the disease resurfaced in Beijing in June 2020 after 55 disease-free days, incidentally also in a wholesale wet market, the Chinese authorities stated that the virus would have reached the market either on salmon fish or its packaging imported from Norway. They claimed that the strain of virus found on [fish] cutting boards in the market resembled the type detected on infected Chinese returnees from Europe.  Subsequently in August 2020, China insisted that the packaging of frozen chicken parts imported from South American countries like Brazil in the southern city of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, had SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus on them. 

The Chinese also pointed to a report that Covid-19-like infection had occured in Italy as early as in September 2019. This led to speculations that the coronavirus would have reached Wuhan with athletes from that country who participated in the Military World Games. When it was reported that the coronavirus was found in sewage water in Italian cities like Turin and Milan, China pointed to it as further proof of its stand that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate in Wuhan, but only emerge in that city.  But, there was no answer to the counterargument that it was possible that the disease was brought to Italy by one or several infected people among the 3.5 lakh Chinese residents in Italy or the thousands of Chinese tourists that visited those Italian cities during the period. 

Australia, Russia, Czech Republic, Serbia, France and Greece are among the countries that were subjected in one way or the other to allegations of being originators of the virus by the Chinese officials and media from time to time. Interestingly, India became the latest target in this Chinese campaign.  A study by the China Academy of Sciences stated that SARS-CoV-2 would have jumped to humans in India as humans and animals shared water from contaminated sources in the summer of 2019, and was carried undetected to Wuhan by infected visitors. However, the study was withdrawn immediately as the global scientific community discounted any such a possibility. 

WHO’s Tribulations  

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who became the Director-General of WHO with strong Chinese backing is finding it increasingly difficult to get meaningful cooperation from the Chinese side in its efforts to get to the bottom of important facts like the origin of the virus, its transmission to humans from a zoonotic source and its human-to-human transmission.

When the outbreak became public knowledge during early last year, WHO went out of the way to publicly praise and repeatedly thank China for its speedy response to the new coronavirus outbreak.  The world body maintained that China’s work and commitment to transparency were “very impressive” and “beyond words” [sic]. But, it was later revealed how the country had tried to hide valuable information particularly at the initial stages, the timely release of which could have changed the course of the pandemic spread. These include revelations by WHO’s Beijing regional office that information was shared with them on several occasions only after asking repeatedly for the same. In such a scenario, how WHO can ask tough questions to the Chinese side on critical issues is anybody’s guess. 

The assertion that China failed in alerting the world about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan or elsewhere in Hubei or other regions in the country even after adequate information and warnings were available earlier than claimed would be difficult for them to disprove. Also, enough evidence is available that timely action by the Chinese side could have limited the virus spread at the local level in Hubei and neighbouring provinces. 

The April 2020 issue of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee publication Qiushi (4/20) had claimed that on 7 January 2020 General Secretary Xi Jinping (who is also the President of the country) had, in an internal speech to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) “issued demands about efforts [to be made] to prevent and control” the coronavirus spread.  Surprisingly, however, neither President Xi himself nor any other senior leaders did not make any statement or take any decisive action on the issue in the following two weeks. After the said PBSC meeting, Xi Jinping even went on a foreign trip to Myamnar, an inspection visit to the southwestern province of Yunnan and even attended an award ceremony.  His customary calls on senior veteran leaders on the eve of the Chinese New Year [that fell on January 25 in 2020] were not cancelled till the last moment. Same was the case with other senior leaders till a lockdown was announced in Wuhan on the night of January 22, to come into effect in the wee hours of January 23, 2020.

There is no doubt that had the Chinese leadership been able to assess the gravity of the situation and acted decisively during those crucial two weeks, a large proportion of the over 19 lakh lives, and livelihoods that number several times over that figure lost to the pandemic could have been saved. 

A Conducted Tour?

Finally, the WHO investigation team arrived in China on January 14, 2021. They have been discussing various related issues with Chinese officials and scientists through videoconferencing from their quarantine facilities. However, will the Chinese authorities make available to them health workers, officials and other stakeholders who can provide accurate information on the outbreak and other related developments, as also original medical and administrative records that can throw light on the matter is anybody’s guess. What evidence can the team collect from visits to the Huanan wet market, hospitals and other facilities that have been cleaned and sanitised months ago as reported in reliable Chinese media outside the mainland? Will the WHO team have unrestricted access to all facilities in Wuhan Institute of Virology, including the labs where various types of coronaviruses collected from Yunnan province etc. are stored?   Will the team be given unhindered access to the original records and instruments related to the ongoing research on various types of viruses, if not already removed from there? 

In other words, there is apprehension that records and other material that would substantiate the Chinese narrative [i.e. SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus had originated in more than one place in other parts of the world and it had reached China undetected, and only happened to emerge in Wuhan] would be made available to the WHO team. And, therefore, will the ongoing and future follow up visits of the WHO investigation team end up as mere ‘conducted tours of China’ for which the country is famous for?  Your guess is as good as mine! 

Title Image Courtesy; https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-china-s-moment-of-truth-2773069

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies.

Muraleedharan Nair

By Muraleedharan Nair

Mr Muraleedharan Nair has held various positions in the Government of India and his postings abroad include those in the Indian diplomatic missions in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China. He has been participating in conferences and seminars on strategic affairs at various institutions and Universities. He also gives talks on contemporary developments in the areas of his expertise at strategic affairs think-tanks. Besides publishing research papers and writing commentaries in newspapers, magazines and online platforms, Mr Nair participates in panel discussions on TV channels and All India Radio. He is a 'Distinguished Senior Fellow' with DRaS.