There is one entity best qualified to answer one of the most important scientific questions of our time: How did the Covid-19 pandemic arise? And they are not virologists Scouring genetic data From wet markets of live animals for zoonotic spread, nor proponents of laboratory leakage Discussion of fizz cleavage sites And Wrestle over translations from old emails.
It is the Chinese government — and that, more than any other fact, is why it is increasingly unlikely that we will ever find an answer that all parties can agree on as to why the worst pandemic in a century occurred.
This is one takeaway from several media reports over the past day about a new analysis of genetic data taken from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, where the first human cases of Covid-19 emerged in more than three years. analysis, First reported by The Atlanticshowing that raccoon dogs illegally sold in the market may have been carrying the novel coronavirus at the end of 2019.
Animal origin—meaning from animals, which is how nearly all emerging diseases first spread to humans—requires scientists to identify the equivalent of a “patient zero” animal species, in which the new virus can incubate and evolve before passing to humans.
If it’s true that raccoon dogs kept in close quarters with humans contracted the virus and shed the virus before people started getting sick, that “really reinforces the natural origin case” of the pandemic, Emory University virologist Seema Lakdawala told The Atlantic. .
But it wouldn’t be a Covid origin story without ongoing mysteries both scientifically and politically. Even if raccoon dogs were carrying the virus at the time, they may not have been the animals’ original reservoir. In the 2003 outbreak of SARS-1, scientists originally indicated Civet cats fingers, only to discover later that The real reservoir was the horseshoe bat.
The new analysis in the Atlantic story has not yet reached the pre-print stage for scientific publication, which means it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, although several researchers submitted their findings to the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 14. .
Then there is the matter of genetic signatures themselves. The data was published without fanfare earlier this month on an open database called GISAID by Chinese researchers affiliated with the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Florence Debarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research who has been examining GISAID for data from the Huanan outbreak, I noticed New genetic signatures on March 4 finally alerted a group of researchers who had been studying the market.
However, when the group reached out to the Chinese scientists who released the data, the sequences suddenly disappeared from GISAID, and no one knows who or why they were removed.
Like so much else about the origins of Covid, it’s a dark mystery – one that could likely only be answered by the Chinese government, which for years seemed intent not on discovery The true beginning of the epidemic, but by proving that the virus that has killed millions of people around the world, whether it was zoonotic or laboratory-borne, did not originate in China.
When politics trumps science
Even under the best and most cooperative of circumstances, identifying the animal reservoir for a new virus is really difficult.
He. She It took scientists 14 years to finally trace the origins of the 2003 SARS outbreak to a remote cave of a horseshoe bat in China’s Yunnan Province. We still don’t know the original animal reservoir of the Ebola virus, which it was It was first identified in humans in 1976.
But the circumstances surrounding the investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 were neither benevolent nor cooperative.
There’s a reason the Huanan market has been the focus of so much speculation about the origins of Covid: The wet market, where animals of many different species are kept in close quarters with humans, is the perfect environment for new viruses to jump from animals to people. For example, while the SARS-1 virus from 2003 originated in bats, it appears to have jumped to humans via intermediate species of civet cats kept in similar wet markets in southern China’s Guangdong province, where the first human cases were discovered.
An early epidemiological study indicated that a number of the first human cases of Covid-19 had a connection to the Huanan market. Had an open and thorough investigation been conducted at the time, when the data was still fresh, scientists might have gotten a clear answer one way or another.
But from the very beginning, the Chinese government has interfered with the efforts of Chinese and international experts to study the epidemic, including its origins. Reporting by the Associated Press It found that even as WHO officials were publicly praising China’s cooperation, they were complaining behind the scenes about a lack of access and a refusal to share data.
Within months of the beginning of the epidemic, the Chinese government restrictions imposed On academic research into the origin of the novel coronavirus. Beijing maintained that no illegal animals — such as raccoon dogs — have been sold on the market, though, researchers reported in June 2021. Publication of a documented study that sales were occurring through at least late 2019.
China’s obstinacy was not unusual – rarely have countries been keen to assert that it is the source of a deadly disease – but it went above and beyond the norm. International investigators were not allowed to see the market until more than a year after the start of the pandemic and WHO team A strictly choreographed and highly controlled visit was allowed.
the The resulting report which came from a visit to Wuhan, and which dismissed the possibility of a laboratory origin, pointed the finger at some kind of zoonotic spread while concluding that it was unlikely that the spread had started in the market, which Many experts were surprised.
It also found that it was “possible” that the virus was introduced by contaminated frozen food products from outside. While few experts Take this possibility seriouslyfit the Chinese government’s narrative was payingAgainst almost all evidence, the epidemic did not, in fact, originate in China.
“China doesn’t want to look bad,” Philippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, said. Science said last August. “They need to maintain an image of control and competence. That’s what they go through in everything they do.”
This opacity makes it difficult to know what to do with an analysis of the new coronavirus. The samples were previously examined by the same group of Chinese researchers, but concluded in February 2022 prepress that “no animal host can be inferred for SARS-CoV-2” and that any coronavirus genetic material was likely brought by humans first, not animals.
George Gao, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China and lead author of the preprint, Science said Yesterday that the sequences were”[n]Nothing new,” he did not explain when asked why the data was uploaded and then quickly removed from GISAID. But whether or not the new evidence is major evidence of zoonotic origin, as the international team of researchers claims, it seems clear that with more collaboration, it would have been Scientists may have been looking for raccoon dogs for a year or more.
“The big problem now is that this data is out there and it’s not readily available to the international community,” Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead for Covid-19 at the World Health Organization, said. to reporters on Friday. “This is critical first and foremost, not to mention that it should have been made available years ago, but the data should be accessible to the people who have access to it, who can analyze it and discuss it with each other.”
The irony is that by making it so difficult to properly investigate a zoonotic origin for Covid, the Chinese government has created a vacuum that has been filled with claims on all sides, including the most damning accusation that the pandemic was the result of a lab error at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
What was dismissed as a conspiracy theory suddenly went mainstream. Last month, the Energy Department reported that it believed with “low confidence” that the virus originated in a lab, while polls released this week found Americans The vast majority of people believe that the virus was transmitted in a laboratory.
The return of SARS
For those of us who experienced the original SARS epidemic in 2003, this all sounds eerily familiar.
Chinese authorities respression Early reports of what could have been SARS cases in southern China in early 2003, and the virus not spreading to Hong Kong – then, if not now, more independent and open to the world – make the full extent of the outbreak become impossible to deny.
Until then, the government had tried to censor the fact that the virus had spread in the capital, Beijing. The Chinese government was only forced to purge when a 71-year-old doctor named Jiang Yanyong I called My colleagues at the time at Time magazine to tell them there were far more SARS cases than the official numbers show.
Beijing should have learned from its SARS experience, and in some ways it did. China in 2003 had no equivalent to the CDC, and it struggled to respond to outbreaks once it could no longer be ignored. For all the many problems with its Zero-Covid strategy — especially once the highly transmissible omicron variant appeared — the Chinese government has been able to control its spread as few other countries can, largely including the United States.
Chinese scientists deserve credit for doing so much early work to identify and sequence the new coronavirus, and for sharing much of this information with the rest of the world, enabling pharmaceutical companies to get an early start on vaccine development.
But when it comes to being candid about how the pandemic began, China seems to have learned nothing since 2003. If anything, things have gotten a lot worse.
International media access to China more limited than it was 20 years ago, which makes it very difficult to know what is really going on within its borders. China’s president, Xi Jinping, is much more powerful than his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in 2003, and government control is much more personal, which makes revealing anything that might put Xi’s rule in a bad light all the more dangerous.
At this point, a clear answer to the origins of Covid would have to come from within China, but revealing sensitive information would be extremely dangerous – as the rest of Jiang Yanyong’s story shows.
After SARS blew the whistle, Jiang was hailed as a hero by his country. But in 2004, Jiang wrote a letter The central government demanded that she admit that the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square was a mistake. Jiang was in Beijing on the night of June 4, 1989And Treating dozens of wounded civilians and demonstrators in Military Hospital No. 301.
As a military doctor, he was used to treating wounded soldiers, but “lying in front of me this time were our people, killed by the children of the Chinese people, with weapons given to them by the people,” he said. He mentions in his letter.
Despite his hero status, Jiang and his wife were arrested after the letter was released, and he was required to undergo interrogation and indoctrination sessions. Banned from leaving China for years, he was repeatedly monitored and harassed by the authorities. It has been erased from the public consciousness.
As a young doctor in the Chinese army, he was nicknamed “Brave Jiang” for his willingness to handle the toughest cases. Jiang – who He passed away this week He was brave when he stood up against official lies during SARS, and brave when he continued to fight for the truth about Tiananmen, despite it all at a cost.
The question of the origins of Covid will continue to be in the pages of scientific journals and in the corridors of power. Unless another brave Jiang appears, we may never know the final answer.
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