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3 Chinese scientists just said Covid came from India, Bangladesh. It’s politics, not science

If a scientist intends to politicise a pandemic, the most unscientific method would be the generation of populist theories without gathering further insight on their data.

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The Chinese culture of eating exotic animals has been widely condemned, including by the people of China. Even within China, the difference between Beijing’s mandarin cuisine — from the Southern Cantonese — and rural cuisine such as from Guanzhou, is stark, not to mention the abundant use of exotic animals for medicinal purposes. Many urban and expat Chinese have termed the culture of eating wild animals ‘uncommon’. The viral ‘bat-soup’ video was denied by the Wuhanese, which was allegedly from Palau — an island nation 2,100 km from China.

The expedition in science to trace back ‘patient zero’ of Covid-19 has been largely unbiased, as opposed to the media and political class. The release of preprints — scientific manuscripts yet to be peer-reviewed and thus open to interpretation by the public that lacks the understanding to review science — has been at the centre of such biases. Preprints can be hyped, misunderstood or taken out of context to spread misinformation because quality checks by independent scientists are missing. Previously, two Chinese scientists were criticised for a conspiracy theory based on evidence-free assumptions that claimed the origins of the novel coronavirus as ‘lab-created’. Thorough genetic research published by The Lancet determined that the SARS-CoV-2 is closely related to the SARS-CoV-1 in its receptor binding sites, only to be distinct in some amino acid sequences, and therefore unlikely to be created through an unnatural lab process.

Further phylogenetic analysis of coronavirus from different species revealed that the human SARS-CoV-2 found in 2019 in China is a close relative of the bat coronavirus RATG13 and far from those isolated from other species. Thus, if there was any evidence of a change in the coronavirus’ genome, it could have been through neutral evolution in a host such as humans after an infection. Such changes occur through mutations in five genes of the coronavirus genome, namely S, N, ORF8, ORF3a, and ORF1ab, with about 42 per cent of the variations occurring as non-synonymous mutations. Such mutations of nucleotide substitutions in the amino acid sequence in the protein-coding gene reflect the positive natural selection and evolution, far from the conspiracy theories of a lab-made virus.

Also read: No correlation between Covid vaccine trial & participant’s condition, says Serum Institute

Pushing unverified science

Despite most scientists largely holding up the tent of evidence throughout this year, the science available online before being awarded a publication status in a journal has been a barrier in the public understanding of the scientific process and the politics behind it.

The recent preprint by Chinese scientists Libing Shen, Funan He and Zhao Zhang titled ‘The early cryptic transmission and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in human hosts’ suggests that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 may not be in China, but in the Indian subcontinent, coming via Australia before making its way into China — a ghastly allegation given the ongoing nature of the dreadful second Covid-19 wave.

The paper attracted a huge spotlight given that it is a Lancet preprint, even though that has no correlation with the quality of the research, and was featured in many international media platforms. The study claimed to have tested various SARS-CoV-2 strains across the world to compare with the first strain identified in China’s Wuhan. It suggests that this first strain found in Wuhan is not the least mutated strain on the basis of the theory of post-infection mutation in humans through adaptive evolution. It also suggests that the lesser the mutations in the genome, the closer the strain is to the origin of the 2019 virus or patient zero.

The study further claimed that the least mutated virus may have arisen from the Indian subcontinent as the region has the highest strain diversity calculated via statistics and the SARS-CoV-2 mutation rate. This hypothesis also made the Chinese scientists believe that the earliest transmission in human hosts could be in July-August 2019, and not in October-November in China as is widely believed.

Also read: Opening schools, campuses and businesses? Keep checking sewage water for Covid

More politics than science

Apart from the unverified science, there are two problems with the theory of the Chinese scientists. First, the Indian subcontinent — they specifically singled out India and Bangladesh — is large, populated and well-traveled. It is highly likely that the returning Indian expats, in huge numbers, got infected in their respective countries, thus bringing back the range of diverse strains from different parts of the world, perhaps even from China. At this time of the pandemic, and especially when the world is open for travel, it is impossible to label a group of viral strains as Indian or Chinese. In either case, peer review and further studies are needed to ascertain such origins, and only if it adds value to the current knowledge.

Second, the spread of mutated strains across the globe has not occurred in a linear manner. Once the virus enters the host, it can mutate, replicate and infect others, and can further mutate, all of which occurs through a multiway process globally. Diversity or mutation rate both, inevitably large in a highly populous country like India, does not provide the evidence required to conclude the origins of patient zero in India.

Perhaps scientists need to focus on the existing challenge of the second wave, which is in a terrible state, even in developed countries, despite copious knowledge that the second wave was going to be more severe.

This current pandemic problem is as political as it is scientific. If a scientist intends to politicise a pandemic, the most unscientific method would be the generation of populist theories without gathering further insight on their data. While the need to develop and manufacture vaccines for the masses has become a scientific race to push the human intellect forward as a joint global fraternity, our species have never been so divided during a global health crisis.

Sumaiya Shaikh PhD is an Australian-Swedish neuroscientist, researching the neuroscience of political violence, in Sweden. She is a consultant on security, terrorism and misinformation. She is the founding editor of the fact-checking portal Alt News Science, India. Views are personal.

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  1. When I was on business trip to China 2 years ago, none of the media ever talk about India or any other country. Here our media talk day in and out what happens in China, even though none of these information have any relevance to India.
    The best country Israel, where I never used hear negative news or fighting on the border there. That was the spirit.

  2. You said that the study is not peer reviewed. Then lets wait for it.
    The study that definitely showed the bats that SARS came from was published in 2017. This was roughly 15 years after the first outbreak in 2002.

  3. China is unreasonable as usual. But, why the attack now? Is it because Indians have lost a friend in US?

    How did a ‘tsunami’ suddenly from out of nowhere come to Tamilnadu and Andamans? There is no history of such for eons. Was China testing something underwater?

  4. Indian Sumaiya Shaikh PhD is an Australian-Swedish neuroscientist, her profession and knowledge has zero credibility to comment on virologists paper.

    In fact she tried to twist and turn her tongues blaming China for politicized the research is plain foolish and laughable.

    Such genome mapping of centralized global data open to public is concurrently carried out by many virologists to trace and study the outbreak pattern. Nobody can make up story as all result can be reproduced and verified by anyone. Published paper will be subjected to peer review and scrutiny.

    No scientists will make themselves a fool globally to ruin their own reputation, except two India scientists who rush to recklessly claimed COVID has AIDS inserted without substantiated research backing. They were forced to retract their uploaded flawed paper.

    China, Jp, Taiwan & UK Cambridge scientists had previously derived similar conclusion that US is likely the source since it alone had all the mutated strains generation of “A”, “B”, “C”. “A” been the earliest strains.

    Whereas China’s strain is “B”, while outside it in Asia and EU is mainly mutated “C”. US, Taiwan and Oz have strains “A”, the earliest oldest strain, but US alone has all the strains implying US is likely the earliest source that spread.

    These results were widely reported in science journals and global news papers.

    As more global infection data is available to scientists, they might narrow further to the earliest source of outbreak to find out patient zero, which is narrowed to India currently.

    In fact India is found to have widest outbreak and extremely high population% with COVID antibody. As of Sep2020, sampling test found Delhi has 33% population with COVID antibody, while Pune has 85%. That implies India may have 400Mils to 1Bil infections by now, achieving close to Herd Immunity.

    However, Israel is strangely the only country refuse to provide its nation COVID data for global centralized research. Do they have something to hide?

    Israel was first to claim had ready vaccines on Feb2020, derived from its research dated 5yrs ago on exactly similar COVID virus out of pure “coincidence” they said.

    But they are still struggling with outbreak with no effective vaccines developed till date. Recently they even have “taken” China vaccines secretly back to study.

  5. In a recent article in the party newspaper Global Times t was claimed that Wuhan virus came from USA thru shipments.

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