Shanghai | First the panic in China, then the opacity of the communist system, finally the accusations of Donald Trump: a year after the death of the first victim of COVID-19, the politicization of the epidemic reduces the chances of experiencing a day the origin of the virus.
On January 11, 2020, Beijing announced the death two days earlier of the first known victim of the new coronavirus, a 61-year-old man who regularly shopped in a market in Wuhan, a metropolis of 11 million people in central China .
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The death of this man, whose very name remains unknown, will be followed by nearly 1.9 million others across the globe in the space of a year.
While it is clear that the epidemic first manifested itself at the end of 2019 in the vast Huanan market in Wuhan, where live wild animals were sold, the origin of the new coronavirus does not necessarily lie there. .
Simply because it takes a long time for a virus to mutate to the point of becoming highly contagious, underlines epidemiologist Daniel Lucey, of Georgetown University in Washington.
The fact that the virus was highly contagious when it was reported in December 2019 means that it had already been circulating for a long time.
“It is absolutely not plausible” that the virus originated in the Wuhan market, according to Professor Lucey. “It appeared naturally several months ago, maybe a year before, maybe even even earlier.”
WHO on the sidelines
Problem: the Chinese authorities, anxious to clear themselves of any responsibility for the appearance of the virus, are trying to accredit without proof a theory according to which the epidemic would have been introduced into China from abroad.
They claim that traces of the virus were discovered in sewage in Italy or Brazil before the disease appeared in Wuhan. But these scans prove nothing as to the origin of the virus, according to experts.
As early as January 2020, Chinese researchers themselves point to the Huanan market as the origin of the epidemic, despite previous studies revealing that some of the very first patients were unrelated to this site.
The city of Wuhan was placed in quarantine on January 23, then its entire province, Hubei, trapping more than 50 million inhabitants.
In March, the authorities’ story begins to change: the boss of Chinese anti-epidemiological services, Gao Fu, explains that the market is not the source, but “the victim” of the virus. The place where the epidemic would only have grown.
But Beijing has since provided no other plausible explanation for the outbreak of the virus, providing little information on samples taken in Wuhan.
As for the foreign experts, they are kept at a safe distance: a team from the World Health Organization (WHO), which should have arrived in China last week, was blocked at the last moment and is ultimately only expected this Thursday.
Discovering the origin of the virus is however crucial to prevent the reappearance of an epidemic. This would make it possible to direct preventive measures towards such and such animal species, to prohibit their hunting or their breeding and to avoid interactions with humans.
“If we can understand why (epidemics) appear, we could fight their vectors,” argues Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based association specializing in disease prevention.
The purely scientific role of China was initially praised internationally, the country having quickly shared the genome of the virus, in contrast to its opaque management of the SARS epidemic in the years 2002-03.
China “has been relatively open,” admits biologist Diana Bell of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.
The problem is that in the chaos that gripped Wuhan in early 2020, traces of the virus may have been erased or moved, further complicating the puzzle.
“This is not surprising. Every epidemic unfolds the same way. In chaos and panic, ”observes Peter Daszak.
Politically, however, President Xi Jinping’s regime does not want to extend over the first weeks of the epidemic, after being criticized at the time for trying to hush up medical alerts as early as December 2019.
One of them, Li Wenliang, had been accused by the police of having “spread rumors”, before dying of COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 in a hospital in Wuhan. His death sparked anger against the regime on social media.
But with the control of the epidemic since last spring, Beijing is now posing as the savior of humanity, offering its vaccines to poor countries as a “global public good”.
In this context, there is no question of tolerating critical voices.
At the end of December, a “citizen journalist” who had covered the quarantine in Wuhan was sentenced to four years in prison.
To make matters worse, the attitude of the American administration has helped dissuade the Chinese authorities from sharing their knowledge about the virus, believes Peter Daszak, who hopes for a thaw with the departure of Donald Trump from the White House.
The latter poisoned the atmosphere of cooperation by talking about the “Chinese virus” and suggesting that the latter could have escaped the Wuhan virology laboratory – a hypothesis not scientifically proven.
Scientists believe the virus originated in bats, but still do not know which other animal could have served as an intermediary to transmit it to humans.
“I am convinced that we will eventually find the species of bat that transmitted it as well as the probable route of contamination”, hopes Peter Daszak. “We will never be sure, but we will surely have solid proof.”
But the question of the species is secondary for Diana Bell. “It doesn’t matter what the source: we just have to put an end to this damn mix of species in the markets. We must stop the trade in wild animals for food ”.