The World Health Organization released its joint report on the origins of Covid-19 on Tuesday, but historians of science will study it for decades—if for no other reason than the obvious discomfort of its 34-author team. Even before the report’s publication, the origins of the virus were a matter of dispute among current and former political and public health figures. In time, these controversies will be lost to history. What will remain is the truth: the original Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan occurred well before the disease rose to international awareness and lockdowns began—most likely in October 2019.
Everyone understands that the lit fuse of Covid-19 was smoldering for some time before governments confronted a blazing global epidemic. Yet the WHO joint report inferentially rejects, then resurrects by caveat, the possibility of an October origin dozens of times. On page 47, for example, the report describes how, in January of this year, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention representatives asked 233 Wuhan health institutions to survey potential early cases of Covid-19 in their records from December 2019. But when the joint team established its work plan later that month, “it was agreed . . . to modify and extend the period for case searching to . . . between 1 October and 10 December 2019.”
Moments like these exemplify the tensions within the team of authors, which consisted of 17 Chinese and 17 international members. Throughout its 313 pages, the WHO report compiles contradictory sentences and paragraphs, caveats, and conspicuous omissions, suggesting that its authors could reach agreement only by disclosing information selectively as part of a technocratic arm-wrestling match.
But the data and evidence speak for themselves.
First, consider the genetic sequencing of coronavirus mutants. With only slight uncertainty, we can quantify the rate at which SARS-CoV-2 changes, and therefore calculate backward to date the common ancestor for all studied variants. On page 60 of the WHO report, the team summarizes 16 estimates in ten published studies, mostly ranging from August 2019 to December of that year. Oddly, the authors do not cite the most-detailed phylogenetic study, from University College London, in which British and French geneticists filtered 7,666 virus genomes for the 198 mutation sites most appropriate for clock analysis. This research team backtracked the last common ancestor of all coronavirus variants to an early infection between October 6 and December 11, 2019.
The outbreak began before late November or December. In a report in The Lancet on January 24, 2020, authorized by the Chinese National Health Commission and presumably approved by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, Wuhan clinicians identified a patient infected on December 1, 2019, who was not connected to the Wuhan seafood market. A subsequent news article published in the South China Morning Post, a newspaper owned by Alibaba that generally acts at arm’s length from the Chinese government, identified an earlier patient infected on November 17, 2019, and at least eight additional infections in the remainder of that month. Still later, a British student-teacher in Wuhan, the late Connor Reed, returned to Wales and reported his own infection, which was initially diagnosed as pneumonia on November 22, 2019, but was retrospectively revised to coronavirus. Since early doubling times for Covid-19 infection were between four and 14 days, and a handful of doubling times are required to reach widespread community transmission, several weeks of previous, undetected transmission would have been required to infect patients before mid-November.
Some suggestions of earlier contagion have been based on evidence that may not be in the public record. Multiple U.S. intelligence officials leaked and subsequently clarified that analysts at the U.S. Armed Services National Center for Medical Intelligence considered a respiratory viral outbreak in Wuhan to be already uncontrolled in the second week of November, based on raw intelligence, including wire and computer intercepts and satellite imagery. This intelligence was subsequently discussed in the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Council and shared with international allies in NATO and the Israeli Defense Force. Meantime, a team from Harvard Medical School identified lower-than-average traffic at seven of 11 hospital satellite observations in Wuhan in September 2019 but higher-than-average traffic at three of four observations in October.
Other reports again imply more weeks of previous, undetected transmission before the uncontrolled epidemic in November. From October 18–27, 2019, the 7th CISM Military World Games were hosted in Wuhan, drawing about 9,000 athletes and coaches from about 100 nations and involving another 236,000 local volunteers. If coronavirus positivity were even one-hundredth of 1 percent among the population of Wuhan at that time, hundreds of infections should have occurred. And indeed, anecdotal reports abound of widespread, feverish respiratory infections among sick athletes during the games and upon their return to Europe. No medical results for affected athletes are likely to become publicly available soon, but European nations that sent more athletes to the games generally experienced higher subsequent Covid-19 caseloads. (The WHO joint report endorses further scrutiny of potential early spread of Covid-19 at this event.)
Could the virus have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory in the first week of October? It’s possible. Unattributed open-source telemetry analysis acquired and published by the NBC News Verification Unit in London suggests that the Wuhan Institute for Virology experienced zero mobile phone activity at the security gate to its Biolevel 4 Facility between October 7 and October 24, 2019 and also zero vehicular traffic between October 14 and October 19. These low-activity anomalies allow for—but do not necessarily prove—the much-discussed lab-leak hypothesis.
Yet the WHO report neglects the theory for no good reason. In its 120 main pages, discussion of the lab-leak hypothesis is limited to the final two pages and dismissed without evidentiary basis. (Hearteningly, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has acknowledged the joint report’s inadequacy in this regard and urged further investigation.) Examination of such hypotheses is obviously justified. In recent decades, biosafety breaches from such laboratories have, in fact, occurred in the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Venezuela, involving smallpox, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, H1N1 influenza, foot and mouth disease, Reston ebolavirus, and SARS-CoV-1 (four separate times from the same Beijing laboratory). Independent auditing of a Level 4 Biosafety facility after a nearby viral outbreak is not a “conspiracy theory.” It is basic due diligence.
Collectively, these published molecular-genetic, medical-record, and doubling-time data, as well as the intelligence evidence verified by news organizations but not fully available to the public, point overwhelmingly to the initial infection of SARS-CoV-2 occurring in Wuhan in early October 2019.
If transmission was uncontrolled in the community for months, why did hospitalizations appear to increase and then explode in December? Two possibilities could account for the delay. First, 10 percent to 20 percent of residents in Chinese cities are migrants from rural areas, often without official registration required for travel and settlement. They lack equal access to public services including health care, which can lead to delayed or poor treatment of illnesses. Second, some environmental factors tend to promote Covid-19’s transmission in colder, drier, and dimmer weather conditions. It is difficult to tease these factors apart; they are not mutually exclusive. Wuhan in the fall of 2019 may be the only location where such analysis is possible because activity continued normally while the epidemic began.
Covid-19 is not the first new virus to threaten our lives and livelihoods, and it won’t be the last. The more we understand the pattern of undetected transmission at the outset of the pandemic, the better we can prevent future outbreaks. That’s all the more reason for citizens and scientists to demand that public-health authorities pursue the truth—not bury it in an avalanche of misdirection.
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