Wuhan’s tentative re-emergence from lockdown has spurred hope of resolving an urgent mystery: the origin of the new coronavirus.
The easing of movement restrictions means local scientists can resume investigations into early-stage biological samples, patient trails and other data that may hold clues to how Covid-19 arose.
But there are signs that China is not sharing all the information the rest of the world is eager to see. Although it has been widely presumed that the virus emerged from animals in a live food market in Wuhan, scientists who have studied its genetics say there is no clear evidence this was the source.
US officials are pressing for China to share more data about the disease from the period before December 31, the day the authorities reported to the World Health Organization a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan.
But a senior Trump administration official said access to Wuhan had been restricted since the coronavirus outbreak. “[W]e would appreciate the opportunity to work directly with their virology labs in Wuhan to share whatever research they have, since they’ve known about it and have been fighting it for at least a month longer than our scientists here in the US,” the official said.
Some scientists and public health officials fear the trail may already have gone cold due to concerns that patients will have forgotten key details and unconfirmed media reports that early samples were allegedly destroyed.
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A researcher at Wuhan Institute of Virology, who declined to be named, said China had not shared samples of live virus with the WHO as the country “had already published plenty of information” such as the genetic code of the coronavirus.
Chinese authorities made public the genetic sequence of coronavirus on January 12, and Chinese researchers subsequently flagged incidences of the disease dating back to December 1. But the WHO and other scientists now say it could have first passed from an animal to a human more than six months ago, as early as October 2019.
Past coronaviruses are likely to have passed from bats to humans via civet cats, in the case of the 2003 Sars outbreak, and via camels, in the case of the 2012 Mers outbreak.
The WHO said the new coronavirus may have its ecological origin in Rhinolophus (horseshoe) bats, but that another intermediary animal was likely to be responsible for transmission to people. Some scientists have identified genetic similarities with pangolin coronaviruses, but are not yet convinced this was the animal.
The organisation said: “Until the source of this virus is identified and controlled, there is a risk of reintroduction of the virus in the human population and the risk of new outbreaks like the ones we are currently experiencing.”
The WHO told the Financial Times that China was now “doing several investigations” into the origin of the disease and that it “makes sense for them to lead on research to find out the origin of the outbreak”.
The Trump administration has censured both China and the WHO for what it describes as a failure to convey information about the disease in time to prevent its global spread. On Tuesday, Mr Trump said the US would halt funding to the WHO and accused it of “severely mismanaging” the coronavirus pandemic. He had previously criticised the UN health agency as being “China-centric”.
Western scientists who have analysed the genetic code of the new virus say it is extremely unlikely to have been made by genetic engineering in a laboratory, as some conspiracy theorists have suggested. But they cannot rule out the possibility that it escaped accidentally from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which were studying animal coronaviruses.
Bruce Aylward, the WHO assistant director-general who led a joint coronavirus mission to China comprising 12 WHO scientists and 13 Chinese scientists in February, told the FT last month that a WHO team would need to return to Wuhan if they were to determine how the virus started.
“The question is where is the animal-human interface that facilitated the cross,” he said following his mission. He said he was told China had collated four key data streams: vendor records of animal sales; samples kept from swabbing the whole market, including gutters where urine and faeces collect; freezers still full of animal parts; and tracking the earliest patients.
“If you have these four really important pieces, you’re optimally going to be able to put those pieces together and say this was the animal,” he said. “The key could be faeces, in urine, living animals,” he said.
The Huanan wholesale market in Wuhan, the “wet” market linked to early clusters of infections, was closed down on January 1 and has been scrubbed clean. Some scientists say data analysis suggests the market was likely to be only a second epicentre.
The first man recorded as dying from the disease came into contact with the market, but his wife — who was also hospitalised with the disease — did not, according to a paper published by Chinese researchers in The Lancet. Of 41 hospitalised patients confirmed to have contracted the disease by January 2, the study showed only 27 had contact with the market.
The WHO said it was “necessary to investigate and interview in depth the first known human cases of the disease for indications as to where they may have become infected”.
The White House coronavirus task force and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the FT after initial publication of our article that while it had asked China CDC to “engage on better understanding the outbreak investigation findings”, it had not made a request for formal research collaboration to the Chinese institution or to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The Chinese lab at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan told the FT it was willing to consider US research requests.
“The US government should contact Chinese CDC for research co-operation as the latter has the best knowledge about contagious disease,” Shi Zhengli, head of the new contagious disease research centre at Wuhan Institute of Virology, told the FT.
“If they do want to work with us, they should send us a formal request and we will make an assessment.”