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Forget Covid origin, the new question is when the first coronavirus case was

A series of articles in journals report circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in different countries way before officially recorded. US House Committee addendum has added to the chorus.

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New Delhi: For months now, the most vexing question about Covid-19 has been whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus is something that evolved naturally or is a chimera produced in the laboratory. 

Subliminally but intrinsically linked to that question, yet another debate has been raging for a while — whether the first Covid case was really on 1 December 2019 as China claims or was the virus already on the prowl not just in the country of its origin but several continents, months before that.

The latest and loudest voice to raise that question is the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff’s 84-page addendum to its September 2020 report on the origins of the virus. 

Published earlier this month, the addendum brings into sharp focus the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 had already reached a host of countries such as Brazil, France and Italy through the athletes of the World Military Games that were held in Wuhan in October 2019.

The document insinuates that the Chinese government, despite knowing that a deadly virus was circulating, allowed the games to be held. It even made all attempts to keep it under wraps.

Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur/ThePrint
Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur/ThePrint

The addendum comes after numerous other reports in scientific journals — some of them pre-prints and some peer-reviewed, looking at the presence of antibodies including neutralising ones that are specific to SARS-CoV-2 — made a similar point over the last one year.

The noise about Covid having breached Chinese boundaries way before it is officially believed to have done so, adds a new dimension to the debate as this could mean many people died across the world without even a diagnosis of their disease.

There is also the persistent suspicion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is, in some ways, a gain-of-function product from the pathogen that infected six miners in the Yunnan province of China in 2012.

Also read: Unvaccinated people 29 times more likely to be hospitalised with Covid, CDC report finds

Case study — Italy

A pre-print uploaded on the site medRxiv earlier this month said samples collected as early as 3 September 2019 from Italy’s Veneto region (among the earliest- and worst-affected regions in the country), and from Lazio on 5 February 2020 had SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The Lazio samples even had neutralising antibodies.

The researchers from Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale Tumori, Milan, wrote: “Beyond serological studies and computational genomic phylogenetic analyses the isolation of the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome itself in a respiratory swab of a symptomatic child recovered for suspected measles and in the skin biopsy of a symptomatic woman with positive IgG Sars-CoV-2 antibodies later on, both in November 2019 in Milan strongly support an early, under surface circulation of the virus.”

They added: “These findings do not at all suggest that the virus originated in Italy, but endorse the idea that the virus was likely spreading in China before the first known cases and that could be brought around by travelers given the direct connection of China with European and US countries, particularly with the Northern West and East Italian regions, which are among the most industrialised and connected areas of Italy.”

Earlier this year, a similar claim was made in a paper published in the journal Science Direct about the virus having been in circulation in Italy earlier than what is recorded.

Scientists tested wastewater samples collected between October 2019 and February 2020 from five wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in three cities and regions in northern Italy (Milan in Lombardy, Turin in Piedmont and Bologna in Emilia-Romagna). 

They reported: “A total of 15 positive samples were confirmed by both methods. The earliest dates back to 18 December 2019 in Milan and Turin and 29 January 2020 in Bologna… Our results demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 was already circulating in northern Italy at the end of 2019.”

Italy has strong trade ties with Wuhan, which, apart from the presence of the now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), is also a garment manufacturing hub. Many Italian fashion houses outsource manufacturing to the Asian nation.

An incidental finding in Italy came from a lung cancer screening trial when researchers looked at the presence of SARS-CoV-2 receptor-binding domain (RBD)-specific antibodies in blood samples of 959 asymptomatic individuals enrolled in the trial between September 2019 and March 2020. 

SARS-CoV-2 RBD-specific antibodies were detected in 111 of 959 (11.6 per cent) individuals, starting from September 2019 (14 per cent), with a cluster of positive cases (over 30 per cent) in the second week of February 2020, and the highest number (53.2 per cent) in Lombardy.

“This study shows an unexpected very early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 among asymptomatic individuals in Italy several months before the first patient was identified, and clarifies the onset and spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic. Finding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in asymptomatic people before the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy may reshape the history of pandemic,” the researchers reported in the journal Tumori in November 2020.

Also read: WHO Covid database has many ‘dodgy journals’, 70 papers are by Indians

Military World Games 2019

The Military World Games 2019 were held in Wuhan between 18 and 27 October 2019. The event is an Olympics for military athletes. 

According to data collated by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 9,308 athletes from 109 countries took part in 329 events. Twenty-five countries, including Russia, Brazil, France, Germany, and Poland, sent athletes to the Games. 

The report claims that many foreign athletes became sick at the Games, quotes an athlete from Luxembourg recalling how his temperature was taken on arrival, and also quotes a Canadian participant talking about how he entered a city in lockdown and suffered “fever, chills and vomiting and insomnia” 12 days after arrival. 

“On our flight to come home, 60 Canadian athletes on the flight were put in isolation [at the back of the plane] for the 12-hour flight. We were sick with symptoms ranging from coughs to diarrhea and in between,” the Canadian athlete is quoted in the report. 

The report even goes so far as to say that this was truly the first “super spreader event”.

Case study — France

Findings of the population-based CONSTANCES cohort (a representative countrywide cohort of 215,000 adults aged 18-69 years) in France also place the circulation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at a date far earlier than what is now recorded. 

French scientists reported in the European Journal of Epidemiology that the first documented case in Europe was detected retrospectively in the country in one patient with a diagnosis of pneumonia and a positive SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR result on 27 December 2019. Serum samples are routinely collected from the CONSTANCES cohort.

“Using serum samples routinely collected in 9,144 adults from a French general population-based cohort, we identified 353 participants with a positive anti-SARS-CoV-2 IgG test, among whom 13 were sampled between November 2019 and January 2020 and were confirmed by neutralising antibodies testing,” the scientists reported in the same paper. 

“Investigations in 11 of these participants revealed experience of symptoms possibly related to a SARS-CoV-2 infection or situations at risk of potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure. This suggests early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe,” the scientists said.

Also read: Covid in India may be entering endemic stage, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan says

Case study — Brazil

Europe was not the only continent where SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in 2019. Scientists in Brazil tested wastewater samples in Santa Catarina from October 2019 to March 2020 to find the virus.

In an article published last month in Science Direct, scientists reported: “Our findings demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 was likely circulating undetected in the community in Brazil since November 2019, earlier than the first reported case in the Americas (21st January 2020)”.

The samples were first checked for the presence of the virus using RT-PCR and then each positive sample was retested at an independent laboratory for confirmation.

‘Obfuscate, hide, and destroy evidence’

This is what the House Committee report addendum wrote in its conclusions: “It is the opinion of Committee Minority Staff, based on the preponderance of available information; the documented efforts to obfuscate, hide, and destroy evidence; and the lack of physical evidence to the contrary; that SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally released from a Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory sometime prior to September 12, 2019.”

It added: “The virus, which may be natural in origin or the result of genetic manipulation, was likely collected in the identified cave in Yunnan province, PRC, sometime between 2012 and 2015. Its release was due to poor lab safety standards and practices, exacerbated by dangerous gain-of-function research being conducted at inadequate biosafety levels, including BSL-2. 

“The virus was then spread throughout central Wuhan, likely via the Wuhan Metro, in the weeks prior to the Military World Games. Those games became an international vector, spreading the virus to multiple continents around the world.”

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: India does not have sufficient data to decide on need of Covid booster shot: MHA expert panel


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