In the year since seafood hawkers started appearing at Wuhan’s hospitals sickened with a strange and debilitating pneumonia, the world has learned a lot about Covid-19, from the way it spreads to how to inoculate against the infection. Despite these advances, a chasm remains in our understanding of the virus that’s killed nearly 2 million people and whipsawed the global economy: we still don’t know how it began.
Where the pathogen first emerged and how it transmitted to humans is a stubborn mystery, one that’s becoming more elusive with each passing month. Before the initial cluster among stall-holders at a produce market in central China, the trail largely goes cold, and the country the novel coronavirus hit first — the place many blame for unleashing the disease on an under-prepared world — now has little incentive to help find the true origin of the greatest public health emergency in a century.
China has effectively snuffed out Covid-19, thanks to stringent border curbs, mass testing and a surveillance network that allows infected people and their contacts to be tracked via mobile phone data. With the fight over the pandemic’s source becoming an extension of the broader conflict between the world’s two superpowers, China is now trying to revise the virus narrative from the beginning, and nowhere is that more evident than at the original epicenter: Wuhan.
Images of first responders dwarf the entrance to the city’s bright red exhibition hall like heroes from Maoist-era propaganda posters: the police officer, the doctor, the soldier; their faces obscured by masks. Inside, a giant photo of a nurse’s hands, inflamed and peeling, hangs over an army of mannequins in Hazmat suits. A 3D hologram of medics tending to a critical coronavirus patient is beamed over a real-life hospital bed, the beeps of a heart-rate monitor creating a sense of drama not lost on the college students shuffling past transfixed. Nearby, testing kits are sealed in clear display cases, labeled like artifacts from another time.
As the world continues to grapple with soaring death counts and mutated strains, China is already relegating the pandemic to its version of history.
The Battle Against Covid-19 Special Exhibition seeks to memorialize everything from mask-making machines and 2,000-bed temporary hospitals to lockdown haircuts and remote learning. A timeline at the entrance to the exhibit chronicles President Xi Jinping’s virus actions in careful detail, starting on Jan. 7, when he ordered the country’s leaders to contain the rapidly swelling outbreak and ending in September, when Xi gave a speech to bureaucrats in Beijing on how China tamed the coronavirus.
There’s no mention of the Huanan seafood market, those first infections, or the public uproar over the government’s cover-ups in the early days of the epidemic, when it hid the extent of human-to-human transmission and delayed taking action. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor whose death from Covid-19 sparked the biggest backlash Beijing had seen in years, appears in a lineup of other Wuhan physicians felled by the virus, barely noticeable. For many Chinese, that anger has been replaced with a sense of pride, that their country bested a crisis that’s all but defeated the U.S., leaving China stronger and on track — by at least one consultancy’s estimate – to become the world’s biggest economy five years earlier than previously predicted.
With the virus firmly contained — Wuhan has had no locally-transmitted cases since May — there’s a growing push to dispel the idea that China was the ultimate source of the virus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2. A foreign ministry spokesman has been espousing theories that link the virus to the U.S. military, and after a spate of cases in Chinese port and cold storage workers, state-backed media are claiming the virus could have entered the country on imported frozen food. They’ve also seized on research that suggests there were infections in the U.S. and Italy that pre-date those in Wuhan.
While some of these theories may have credence, the irony is that we may never know how and where the virus emerged. China has ignored appeals for an independent investigation into the virus’s origin, hammering Australia with trade restrictions after it called for one. It’s also stalled efforts by the World Health Organization to get top infectious diseases experts into Wuhan this year. That’s prevented the painstaking epidemiological detective work — from probing samples of the city’s wastewater, to checking patient specimens collected months before the outbreak appeared for early traces of the pathogen and undertaking tests at the food market itself — that could provide insight into the chain of events that brought the virus to the bustling capital of Hubei province, and how to stop it from happening again.
Now, with a WHO team focused on tracing the virus’s origin hoping to visit Wuhan in January, and a crew commissioned by The Lancet medical journal also on the hunt, the city may not have much to reveal. Life is largely back to normal for Wuhan’s 11 million people, the first to experience the lockdowns now shuttering parts of Europe and North America for a second time.“These things are awfully hard to do retrospectively, even if all the evidence is still in place,” said Robert Schooley, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of California, San Diego and editor-in-chief of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. Located just 5 miles south of the exhibition center, the Huanan seafood market is partitioned off by eight-foot-high metal barricades, replete with pictures of tranquil rural scenes — bolted to the ground. Potted palm trees dot the perimeter of the multi-story building, site of the world’s first known cluster of Covid-19. Until government cleaners swooped in in late 2019, to close, vacate and sanitize dozens of stalls, it was a key source of produce for locals and restaurants in central Wuhan. It was also reported by media including Agence France Presse to have sold a range of wild animals and their meat, from koalas and wolf pups to rats and palm civets, the cat-like animals suspected of being the conduit of the SARS virus between bats and humans, which led to a deadly outbreak in China in 2002 that subsequently spread to other parts of the world.
Now only eyeglass vendors line the sparsely filled aisles on Huanan’s second floor, their diminished clientele carefully vetted by security guards. On a recent visit to the market, Bloomberg News reporters were warned away by plain-clothes officials and later, police.
Beyond the carefully constructed museum exhibits, few other signs of Wuhan’s epic battle with the coronavirus exist. A makeshift hospital famously built in about two weeks to treat thousands of critical patients has been shut down and boarded up. Two local women said they’d heard the site would be turned into apartments.
In Wuhan Tiandi, a shopping precinct that claims to have China’s first outdoor food street with air conditioning, couples and families rugged up against the winter chill casually remove their face masks to eat and chat. When asked about the origins of the virus, most said it didn’t start in the city.
For all of China’s stonewalling, scientists suspect they could well be right.
The place a virus first infects a human isn’t necessarily where it begins spreading efficiently among people, said Joel Wertheim, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies the evolution and epidemiology of infectious diseases. HIV, for instance, is thought to have originated in chimpanzees in southeastern Cameroon, but didn’t begin spreading readily in people until it reached the city of Kinshasa, hundreds of miles away.
While researchers surmised early on that the horseshoe bat identified as the likely source of SARS could also have spawned SARS-CoV-2, how it crossed the species barrier to infect humans remains unclear. It’s likely that precursors to this virus spilled over from their natural reservoir many times, but went extinct when infected individuals didn’t transmit the virus to anyone, according to Wertheim. Eventually, the virus infected someone who passed it to multiple people, who also passed it on to others.
“You could have sort of these one-off, dead-end transmission chains until you get into Hubei province, which is where the epidemiological data says this is where it was spreading,” Wertheim said. “And it seems to have seeded the rest of China from there, and then from China to the rest of the world.”
Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus in January, a move that has allowed experts elsewhere to make some inroads into how this may have started. Wertheim and his colleagues studied SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes and the pace at which they mutated and diversified from the earliest known specimens in Wuhan. From mid-October to mid-November 2019 is the most plausible period in which the first case in people emerged, according to a pre-print of Wertheim’s research released Nov. 24.
The question of how the pathogen got to central China is the subject of more debate. The coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 were found in bats in China’s Yunnan province, some 1,000 miles southwest of Wuhan. The mountainous region borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, all countries known to have sizable horseshoe bat populations.
“We can’t rule out that the person who first got this virus was in Yunnan and then infected another person who hopped on a plane and went back to Wuhan after their vacation,” said Michael Worobey, head of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who worked with Wertheim on the timing of the first possible case.