Did coronavirus outbreak begin in September, not December as China says?

The novel coronavirus does not speak the language that we understand. Else, we would know when it made humans its home and colonised them subsequently. We are still trying to understand the symptoms of the illness that novel coronavirus causes among humans. What we understand is that there is a theory or many theories about the origin of coronavirus pandemic.

What we officially knew till a few days ago was that China noticed a new illness in December 2019. Amid reports of cover-up, China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 31 about the virus outbreak in Wuhan.

On January 7, China said the mystery illness was being caused by a new coronavirus — the seventh member of the coronavirus family to reach humans. It was later officially named SARS-CoV-2 because it was found to be close to the virus responsible for the 2002 respiratory syndrome outbreak — SARS.

China told the WHO that 41 people had fallen ill due to the novel coronavirus illness between December 8 and January 2. This fixed the transmission of novel coronavirus to early December. China said most of the patients were exposed to the Wuhan sea food market — a wet market — which naturally came to be identified as the source of the pandemic’s outbreak.

Being one of the top business hubs of China, Wuhan has fast-moving international passenger traffic. The novel coronavirus soon travelled to Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. On January 30, the WHO declared it a global health emergency.

France’s is a unique case. It recorded the first coronavirus case on January 24. Or, so it thought. Now, the first French coronavirus patient has been dated back to December 27 – that is, four days before China told the WHO that it had had a coronavirus outbreak.

A study finding this result was published on May 3 in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents. For the study, French doctors examined samples of 14 atypical pneumonia patients reported between December 2 and January 16 in Paris.

The study identified France’s ‘patient zero’ as a fishmonger who was admitted to a hospital on December 27. Interestingly, the patient had not travelled outside the country since August 2019.

How he got the virus is not yet ascertained. His wife works at an airport and it is speculated that she might have caught the virus, showed no symptoms and passed on the infection to her husband. However, it is not yet clear if French authorities have tested her samples for antibodies, which could indicate whether she was previously infected by the novel coronavirus.

But this study has revived China bashing in public discourse with US President Donald Trump saying that the communist regime either hid the true extent of the pandemic or is simply incompetent.

What this study has also done is to bring back focus on a paper first published by researchers at Cambridge University in April. In this study, geneticists from Britain and Germany tried to understand the origin of the virus by analysing 160 complete virus genomes sequenced from Covid-19 patients who were diagnosed between December 24 and March 4.

They found three variants of novel coronavirus causing three different types of Covid-19. They named the variants as Type A, B and C. Type A was thought to be “the original human virus genome” that infected humans in Wuhan.

But what surprised the researchers is that Type A was not the dominant virus in Wuhan. It was dominant, however, in the US. Type A was most common outside Wuhan and in its southern parts.

This finding was significant as it indicates that the Wuhan wet market, the leading candidate of the source of origin of Covid-19, could not actually have been the place of origin. Some other epidemiologists have also doubted this Wuhan market theory of Covid-19 origin.

The Cambridge researchers headed by geneticist Peter Forster later expanded the scope of research by examining over 1,000 virus genomes.

The university quoted Forster as saying that the phylogenetic (study of evolution of genes) research suggests that the first infection and spread among humans of SARS-CoV-2 occurred between mid-September and early December.

This pushes the outbreak of coronavirus infection by about three months and gives conspiracy theorists more ammunition to bash China accusing it of deliberately hiding information about coronavirus outbreak and putting the whole world in danger.

China has, obviously, denied any deliberate foul play. And, China has not yet allowed the WHO to be part of the probe team that is trying to find out where and when the novel coronavirus met its first human victim.

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About the author: Sohom Das
Founder of Tuccho.

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