Politics, mixed messages and the pandemic of the century

China’s team leader during the WHO mission to Wuhan condemns critics ahead of the fact-finding report

China is spinning its own version of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan ahead of the World Health Organisation report, which is due to be released next week.

Jumping the gun on the official findings, Chinese team leader Liang Wannian has taken a swipe at critics who fear an investigation whitewash.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. What started as an epidemic quickly morphed into a full-blown pandemic. 

More than a year later, countries across the world are still in lockdown while the global economy has been trashed. At least 2.6 million people have died and nearly 121 million have been infected.

“I don’t need to tell you that Covid-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that has shaken the foundations of social, political, and economic security,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a panel discussion organized by the London School of Economics earlier this week. 

He could have added that the world is no nearer to finding out the origins of the virus.

Still, below are excerpts from an interview by Chinese coronavirus expert Liang in the state-run Global Times. Needless to say, Beijing is likely to agree with his views.   

Follow the science

Liang Wannian: “Tracing the origins has never been a simple task and requires long-term joint efforts by scientists. It is hard to expect 30 or so scientists on both sides to give clear answers to all the questions in [the report]. Where the novel coronavirus came from, how it infected people, how it spread to Wuhan – these questions still need scientists to continue their research.”

Another viewpoint: That statement about “how it spread to Wuhan” appears to back up remarks made by Beijing officials or in the state-controlled Press that the virus could have been imported. As yet, there is no evidence of that. Maybe, the official WHO report will shed light on the issue.

Medical staff treat a baby infected with Covid-19 in Wuhan. Photo: Wuhan Children’s Hospital
The outbreak 

Liang Wannian: “The earliest case was set at December 8, 2019. Disease surveillance and early case search did not find any earlier cases than that one. The Huanan seafood market played a role in the occurrence and development of the epidemic and played an important role in the detection of the epidemic. The virus is of natural origin.”

Another viewpoint: “New evidence from China is affirming what epidemiologists have long suspected: The coronavirus likely began spreading unnoticed around the Wuhan area in November 2019, before it exploded in multiple different locations throughout the city in December, said World Health Organisation researchers,” The Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Origins of the virus

Liang Wannian: “The most likely transmission route was from the natural host to the intermediate host, and then to humans. Cold chain transmission plays an important part in the origin and transmission of the epidemic. It is [also] extremely unlikely that the outbreak was caused by a laboratory leak.”

Another viewpoint: “Nikolai Petrovsky, an immunologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, told the Australian Science Media Centre [that] there is limited evidence – ‘beyond relatively weak data already in the public domain’ – for the idea that early transmission in China was linked to the ‘cold food chain,’ the transportation of frozen goods such as meat. [But] he acknowledges that the team might have access to information that is not currently public,” Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, reported last month.

Politics be damned

Liang Wannian: “Recently, some politicians and the media in the world insisted on politicizing the scientific issue of tracing the source of Covid-19, regardless of scientific facts, for their own personal gain, arbitrarily misinterpreting the scientific findings and reports of our joint team, which is a huge disrespect to the work of our scientists.”

Another viewpoint: “It took many months for [the] WHO team to arrange a visit to China with Chinese authorities. Critics say the delay cost valuable time in efforts to unearth the origins of a pandemic,” Associated Press reported on March 18 adding: [The] WHO repeatedly praised the Chinese government’s early response, even though recordings of private meetings obtained by the Associated Press exposed how top officials at the health agency were frustrated at China’s lack of cooperation.”