A year after first confirmed death, COVID-19 source still a puzzle

WUHAN, Jan 10: It is the world’s most pressing scientific puzzle, but experts warn there may never be conclusive answers over the source of the coronavirus, after an investigative effort marked from the start by disarray, Chinese secrecy and international rancour.
January 11 marks the anniversary of China confirming its first death from COVID-19 — a 61-year-old man who was a regular at the now-notorious Wuhan wet market.
Nearly two million deaths later, the pandemic is out of control across much of the world, leaving tens of millions ill, a pulverised global economy and recriminations flying between nations.
Yet China, which has broadly controlled the pandemic on its soil, is still frustrating independent attempts to trace the virus’ origins and the central question of how it jumped from animals to humans.
There is little dispute that the virus which brought the world to its knees sparked its first known outbreak in late 2019 at a wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where wildlife was sold as food, and the pathogen is believed to have originated in an undetermined bat species.
But the trail ends there, clouded by a mishmash of subsequent clues that suggest its origins may predate Wuhan as well as conspiracy theories — amplified by U.S. President Donald Trump — that it leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Establishing the source is vital for extinguishing future outbreaks early, leading virologists say, providing clues that can guide policy decisions on whether to cull animal populations, quarantine affected persons, or limit wildlife hunting and other human-animal interactions.
China won early kudos for reporting the virus and releasing its gene sequence in a timely manner, compared with its cover-up of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.
But there has also been secrecy and shifting stories. Wuhan authorities initially tried to cover up the outbreak and later spent precious weeks denying human-to-human transmission.
Early on, Chinese officials declared flatly that the outbreak began at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.
But Chinese data in January 2020 showed that several of the first cases had no known links to the now-shuttered market, suggesting a source elsewhere.
China’s story morphed again last March when top Chinese disease control official Gao Fu said the market was not the source, but a “victim”, a place where the pathogen was merely amplified.
But China has since failed to publicly connect any dots, releasing scant information on animal and environmental samples taken at the market that could aid investigators, experts say.
And it has kept foreign experts at arm’s length, with a planned mission by World Health Organization virus sleuths now in limbo after China denied them entry.
The reasons for China’s secrecy are unclear, but the ruling Communist Party has a history of suppressing politically damaging information.
Whistleblowers and citizen reporters who shared details of the terrifying early weeks of the virus on the internet have since been muzzled or jailed.
Beijing may want to hide regulatory or investigative lapses to avoid domestic embarrassment or global “blowback”, said Daniel Lucey, a Georgetown University epidemiologist who closely tracks global outbreaks. The Wuhan market might not even be the issue, Lucey adds.
He notes that the virus was already spreading rapidly in Wuhan by December 2019, indicating that it was in circulation much earlier.
That’s because it may take months or even years for a virus to develop the necessary mutations to become highly contagious among humans.
Augmenting the doubt, in December China said the number of coronavirus cases circulating in Wuhan may have been 10 times higher early in the epidemic than revealed by official figures at the time.
The trail has now gone cold, with the drip of subsequent clues only adding to the confusion, including findings that the virus may have existed in Europe and Brazil before Wuhan’s outbreak, unconfirmed suggestions which China has seized upon to deflect blame. (AFP)

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