On January 11, 2020, Beijing announced the death of the first known victim of the new coronavirus, a 61-year-old man who regularly shopped at a market in Wuhan, a metropolis of 11 million people in central China, two days earlier. The death of this man, whose name is still unknown at the time, will be followed by nearly 1.9 million more people around the world within a year.
While it is clear that the epidemic first manifested itself in Wuhan’s huge Huanan market, which sold live wildlife in late 2019, the origin of the new coronavirus does not necessarily lie there. . Quite simply because it takes a long time for a virus to mutate so highly that it becomes highly contagious, emphasizes the epidemiologist Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University in Washington.
The fact that the virus was highly contagious when it was reported in December 2019 therefore means that it has been around for a long time. “It is absolutely implausible” that the virus originated in the Wuhan market, according to Professor Lucey. “It came out a few months ago, of course, maybe a year ago, maybe even earlier.”
Wuhan market, “victim” of the virus
Problem: The Chinese authorities, eager to rid themselves of any responsibility for the occurrence of the virus, are trying to accredit a theory that the epidemic was brought into China from abroad without evidence. They claim traces of the virus were discovered in wastewater in Italy or Brazil before the disease emerged in Wuhan. However, according to experts, these scans do not prove anything about the origin of the virus.
As of January 2020, Chinese researchers themselves are pointing to the Huanan market as the origin of the epidemic, although previous studies showed that some of the very first patients were unrelated to this spot. Wuhan city was quarantined on January 23, then the entire Hubei province of more than 50 million people.
In March, the history of the authorities began to change: The head of the Chinese anti-epidemiological services, Gao Fu, declared that the market is not the source but “the victim” of the virus. The place where the epidemic would only have grown.
However, since then Beijing has provided no other plausible explanation for the virus outbreak and has provided little information on samples taken in Wuhan. Foreign experts are being kept a safe distance: a World Health Organization team that should have arrived in China last week was blocked at the last moment. Beijing again said “negotiate” with WHO on the mission’s progress.
Traces of the virus deleted or moved
However, discovering the origin of the virus is critical to preventing an epidemic from recurring. This would make it possible to take preventive measures against one species or another, prohibit their hunting or breeding, and avoid interactions with humans.
“If we can understand why (epidemics) occur, we could fight their vectors,” says Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based association that specializes in disease prevention.
China’s purely scientific role was initially praised internationally, as the country, in contrast to its opaque management of the SARS epidemic between 2002 and 2003, had quickly divided the genome of the virus. China “was relatively open,” admits Diana Bell, a biologist at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain.
The problem is that in the chaos that struck Wuhan in early 2020, traces of the virus were able to be deleted or moved, further adding to the puzzle. “This is not surprising. Every epidemic is the same. In chaos and panic,” notes Peter Daszak.
China, savior of mankind
Politically, however, President Xi Jinping’s regime does not want to extend into the first few weeks of the epidemic after being criticized at the time for attempting to cover up medical warnings back in December 2019.One of them was Li Wenliang was accused by police of “spreading rumors” before he died of Covid in a hospital in Wuhan on February 7, 2020. His death sparked anger against the regime on social media.
With the control of the epidemic since last spring, Beijing is now posing as the savior of humanity and offering its vaccines to poor countries as a “global public good”. In this context, it is not important to tolerate critical voices. At the end of December, a “citizen journalist” who reported on the quarantine in Wuhan was sentenced to four years in prison.
To make matters worse, the American government’s stance has helped dissuade Chinese authorities from sharing their knowledge of the virus, believes Peter Daszak, who is hoping for a thaw with Donald Trump’s departure from the White House. The latter poisoned the atmosphere of collaboration by speaking of the “Chinese virus” and pointing out that the latter could have escaped the virology laboratory in Wuhan – a possibility that has been ruled out by the scientific community.
Scientists believe the virus came from bats, but still don’t know which other animal could have acted as an intermediary for transmission to humans. “I am convinced that at some point we will find the bat species that transmitted them and the likely route of contamination,” hopes Peter Daszak. “We’ll never be sure, but we will certainly have solid evidence.”
But the question of type is secondary for Diana Bell. “It doesn’t matter where the source is from: we just have to end this damned species mix in the markets. We have to stop trading wild animals for food.”