China Floats Theory the Coronavirus Had Foreign Origins

A woman hiding a protective mask under a scarf is seen in the public transportation on Feb
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Dr. Zhong Nanshan, China’s “top respiratory specialist” according to state-run media, on Thursday floated a completely unsubstantiated theory that the Wuhan coronavirus did not originate in China. 

China’s Global Times amplified the spin by claiming “some other experts” support Zhong’s theory that the virus “might have multiple birthplaces co-existing around the globe.” In other words, it came from everywhere but China:

Zhong made the remarks at a press conference jointly held by the Guangzhou government and Guangzhou Medical University.

“But we cannot say that virus comes from abroad. The question could be answered by tracing the source of the novel coronavirus and getting a result,” Zhong said.

Analysts said Zhong’s words indicate the toughness of the battle against the coronavirus, especially when the disease is spreading around the world but the source and transmission chain are still not completely clear. 

Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told Global Times that the novel coronavirus might have multiple birthplaces co-existing around the globe. 

Due to the differences of climates, the virus in some places burst out earlier and faster than others, Yang said, noting there are also possibilities that the coronavirus in Wuhan was from another source, through virus hosts like humans and animals. The chains of transmission are of vital importance to contain the disease. 

No one involved in spreading this theory seems to have offered an explanation for why all of the early cases came from the city of Wuhan, beyond vague suggestions that some X-factor at the wet market might have caused the coronavirus to mutate into its present, highly infectious form. 

The speculation about foreign origins began after a report was published by a Chinese research organization this week questioning the widely-held belief that the epidemic began when humans came into contact with infected animals or consumed their meat at a “wet market” in Wuhan.

Prior to the publication of this report, Chinese officials definitively stated that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans by what they characterized as “illegal” trade in wildlife at the market. The new report issued by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Institute for Brain Research concluded that the virus was “imported from elsewhere” and spread through the “crowded market.”

At the time, this was taken by critics outside China as a tacit admission that the virus might have been released from a research laboratory near Wuhan that has drawn a good deal of skeptical attention, or some other source beyond the controversial open-air slaughterhouses, but seems the report was a prelude to the Chinese Communist Party floating theories that the virus came from outside China, not just outside the Wuhan wet market. The report itself did not assert the virus had foreign origins.

Dr. Zhong capped off his speculation with a generous helping of politically useful praise for the Chinese government:

Experts said that China’s moves of blocking cities and forbidding the trafficking of wildlife have helped narrow down the research into the transmission chain. 

At the press conference on Thursday, Zhong praised the timely intervention from the Chinese government and nationwide joint prevention and control efforts, which have successfully prevented a mass COVID-19 outbreak in China.

Zhong said that he will share China’s experience with the European Respiratory Society (ERS) this weekend through livestreaming. More international cooperation is needed, including setting up a long-term mechanism, he said.

Some China-watchers who formerly respected Zhong were horrified by what they saw as the doctor lending his prestige to Communist Party propaganda.

Aside from his musings on the origin of the virus, Zhong’s press conference contained a mixture of optimism and pessimism about the epidemic, generally hewing to Beijing’s official predictions that the virus will be under control by April:

Zhong pointed out the development of new drugs against COVID-19 is impossible to complete in 20 days or even a month, which requires long-term accumulation.

According to Zhong, one COVID-19 patient can infect an average of two to three people, making it more severe than SARS. However, he said that ideally, cured COVID-19 patients are unlikely to be reinfected, referring to the news that 13 recovered and discharged patients from Guangzhou tested positive again in checkups recently.

“Treatment first, research second,” said Zhong, noting that new drugs will be first carefully tested in a controlled trial before they are used on patients. 

Japan reported its first confirmed case of re-infection on Wednesday: a woman in her 40s who was hospitalized after testing positive in January, who then recovered, and has now been readmitted with symptoms of the disease. 

The Japanese Health Ministry responded to the news by urging all coronavirus cases to be reviewed and recovered patients monitored carefully to ensure they are not still contagious.

Some health experts theorized that the Japanese case and other apparent re-infections could actually be the virus going dormant and causing the patient to believe they have recovered, when in fact they are still infected and contagious. Such “bi-phasic” behavior has been observed in other diseases, notably including anthrax.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.