Coronavirus emerged in many places, Chinese foreign minister says

Ji Siqi, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 03 2021 12:11 PM

While China was the first country to report the coronavirus, evidence is growing that the pathogen emerged in multiple locations around the world, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday.

"We raced to report the epidemic first," he said in an interview with Xinhua.

"More and more research studies have shown that the pandemic is likely to have emerged in many places around the world."

China identified the first cases of a then unknown pneumonia-type disease in Wuhan on December 31, 2019, and soon after closed down a seafood market from where it was thought to have originated.

But Beijing insisted it had found no evidence of human-to-human transmissions until three weeks later, a claim that sparked widespread criticism from the West, which accused China of a cover-up.

Wang's comments echo those of some of China's top health officials and state media, as the government has sought to reshape the narrative on the origin of the virus.

In November, Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that although Wuhan was where the coronavirus was first detected it might not have been where it originated.

Wu Zunyou, the CDC's incumbent chief epidemiologist, said the virus could have come into the country on frozen seafood or meat products.

But Wang is the most senior government official to promote the idea, which has been welcomed domestically but shunned by most Western audiences.

"We are on the front line of the struggle for public opinion," he told Xinhua. "We are resolutely against the politicisation of the pandemic and labelling the virus, and will never allow lies to contaminate the objective narrative and collective memory of fighting the pandemic."

His comments came as the World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing to send a group of international experts to Wuhan for a six-week mission this month to investigate the origin of the virus based on human and animal samples collected by Chinese researchers.

However, George Gao Fu, director of the CDC, said in an interview with Xinhua last week that the WHO team did not have an easy task.

"It may take a long time to find the virus," he said. "It's also possible that the virus will disappear before we find the origin."

Beijing has said repeatedly that similar studies should be conducted in other countries, while Chinese nationalist tabloid newspaper Global Times has called for the WHO team to look into people who visited Wuhan before the outbreak, including foreign athletes who took part in the Military World Games in the city in October 2019.

Research conducted in other countries, including Italy and the US, has suggested that the novel coronavirus might have been circulating elsewhere in the world before it was identified in Wuhan and became a pandemic.

A study carried out by the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found antibodies for Covid-19 in blood samples collected from American subjects on December 13, 2019, two weeks before China announced the pneumonia caused by a new virus..

A study based on serological samples in Italy suggested their may have been antibodies against the virus as early as September 2019.

Those findings, however, are not conclusive. Government records seen by the South China Morning Post in March traced the first Chinese Covid-19 patient back to November 17, 2019 or even earlier, though the case might have been identified retrospectively.

Mike Ryan, director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, said in November that it would be "highly speculative" for the WHO to say the coronavirus did not emerge in China.

"It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged," he said, adding that any evidence gathered in China might then lead the inquiry to elsewhere in the world.

Besides trying to redirect the narrative on the origins of the coronavirus, Wang highlighted China's contribution to the global effort to combat the pandemic.

"We have provided more than 220 billion masks, 2.25 billion items of protective clothing and 1.02 billion testing kits to countries around the world," he said.

"Made in China has become a continuous supply line in the global fight against the pandemic. We were the first to pledge to make vaccines a global public good."

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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