This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
An Italian medical researcher who reported finding signs of antibodies to COVID-19 in Italian patients before China confirmed its first official case of the disease on Dec. 31 have said the findings don’t undermine the prevailing view that the virus originated in Wuhan.
Giovanni Apolone, lead author of a study published in the INT’s scientific magazine Tumori Journal, said the fact that antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, were circulating in the Italian population prior to the first confirmed Italian case in February didn’t challenge the currently prevailing view that it originated in the central city of Wuhan.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machine has kicked into high gear on the subject of the coronavirus’ origins in recent weeks, saying the virus could have come to China before tearing through the population of Wuhan and evolving into a global public health disaster.
SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have originated in bats and mutated via a second animal host — possibly pangolins — into a form capable of infecting humans, according to a report in The Lancet medical journal’s September 2020 edition.
“Everything points to a bat sarbecovirus reservoir; we are very confident about this,” David Robertson, head of bioinformatics at the Medical Research Council–University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, told The Lancet.
“The virus would not need to evolve in the pangolin, it would just need to be brought into contact with humans,” Robertson said of the theory that pangolins, banned but still traded illegally in huge numbers in China, were an intermediate host for COVID-19.
Since these reports began appearing, Chinese state media have published a number of stories and comments claiming that while the pandemic originated in Wuhan, it didn’t necessarily make its first jump to humans there, and could have been imported.
Apolone said the detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Italian study participants who may have been infected as early as September 2020 didn’t necessarily support Beijing’s claim, however.
“All the findings so far suggest that the origin of the virus and of the pandemic is from Wuhan,” he said in comments emailed to RFA.
He said other recent papers, including one based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had shown that the virus was “present and circulating” in France and the United States before the first official Chinese case was confirmed.
“The fact that the virus was present and circulating in Italy, France, and USA …much before the official communication by China … is likely due to two factors: the lack of identification of the problem during the first phase and/or a delay of communication for political reasons,” Apolone said.
The Italian study, the CDC study, and a French study based on the retesting of old pneumonia samples were all used in a Dec. 2 Facebook video published by China’s state news agency Xinhua to support claims of a non-Chinese origin for SARS-CoV-2.
Interview censored by China
Apolone said he had been interviewed by Chinese state media, but his comments hadn’t been reported in full.
“I was interviewed by some Chinese media but my response about the origin of the virus was censored,” he said in his email to RFA.
He said the researchers plan to follow up on the study with more in-depth interviews of participants, and that current theories have yet to be confirmed.
“We are conducting additional analysis to understand better the signal we found in the context of our wider study,” Apolone wrote.
“I expect that after our publication other teams will report data regarding the origin, timing, and spread of the pandemic virus that will be useful to clarify the argument.”
While China didn’t officially confirm its first COVID case until Dec. 31, a directive issued by the Wuhan municipal health committee called on hospitals on Dec. 30 to follow guidelines when treating cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause that have been appearing” in hospitals.
The directive also banned hospital staff from sharing any information on the disease with the outside world.
“No organization or individual shall make public any medical information, unless they are authorized to do so,” the directive said.
Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said on Jan. 2 it had isolated a pneumonia patient who arrived from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, who had tested negative for SARS and avian and seasonal influenza.
By Jan. 6, the number of patients in Hong Kong isolation wards had risen to 21 people, none of whom had visited Wuhan’s South China Seafood Market mentioned as a possible link between early cases by mainland Chinese health officials.
Hong Kong raised its response level to serious and announced that the then unknown pathogen had “public health significance” on the same day.
Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, warned on Jan. 4 that it was highly possible that the illness was spreading from human to human, given the sheer number of cases that had mushroomed in a short period of time.
However, China didn’t publicly confirm that the virus was being transmitted between people until Jan. 22, and Wuhan residents told RFA in early January that nobody in the city was wearing masks, nor appeared concerned about the new virus.