In the hunt for the origins of the Coronavirus that has touched off a global pandemic, the information on very first cases are extremely important. As they could help in solving the mystery about where the virus came from.
China had earlier stated that the outbreak began in Wuhan in December 2019, but this may not be the whole story: There have been suggestions by Chinese and Western scientists that some cases arose earlier. So, who were the first victims, and where did they encounter the virus? Are they still alive or dead? China should help solve this mystery, but it so far has thrown a cloak over it.
In the wake of these suspicions, Beijing steadfastly denied there was an inadvertent leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, one of two theories being pursued about the virus origin. The other is a zoonotic spillover from an animal.
President Biden announced on Wednesday that the US intelligence community was divided over the competing theories and said he had urged further investigation.
Identification of the initial cases could help resolve the issue. On January 15, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside” the Wuhan Institute of Virology “became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” But he provided no further evidence for this vague claim, and when a joint World Health Organization-China mission went to the WIV on February 3, the director, Yuan Zhiming, categorically denied Pompeo’s assertion.
What’s known so far about early cases - on December 31, 2019, China informed the WHO of 44 cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. By the time China agreed to a joint study with the WHO in summer 2020, the number of these cases had grown to 124. The resulting joint report in March 2021 said Chinese records had established 174 confirmed cases in December 2019, and the first onset among these was December 8.
Now the question is - 'were there others before that?' In preparation for the WHO-China joint mission, Chinese officials examined 76,253 cases of fever or respiratory illness in 233 health-care institutions from October 1 to December 10, 2019. Out of this mass of records, they identified 92 people who might have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the autumn. However, on further scrutiny, all 92 cases were rejected as COVID.
Chinese officials somehow refused to let the WHO see raw data on these potentially significant 92 early cases. Moreover, the survey was too small and selective. Any investigation should reach back to much earlier, to at least the summer of 2019, and involve matched control patients and healthy controls from other populations in Hubei province and elsewhere in China.
But this wasn’t done, and then the 92 cases were tossed out altogether. WHO officials left with a feeling the job was unfinished.
Another hint aired from parallel Chinese and Western studies of how the virus evolves. These reports used methods that rely on a molecular clock and simulations of viral evolution to estimate when the virus first got a foothold in humans.
The Chinese researchers, led by Yezhen Zhao of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, estimated in February 2020 that the first cases arose between September 23 and December 15, 2019.
Using similar methods, Jonathan Pekar of the University of California at San Diego and others found that it was probably mid-October to mid-November of 2019.
Basic questions about where these 'initially-infected' lived, worked, travelled, shopped and socialised might explain how they got infected and from where. If patients provided samples for testing on a visit to a clinic or hospital, the samples might be used to examine the genome of the virus at that early moment, which could provide hints about its origin.
The early cases may have been puzzling to Chinese doctors and the underlying cause might not have been known, but by late December they had identified the source as a coronavirus.
Those at the highest levels of the Chinese government knew by early January that the virus was spreading, yet irresponsibly continued to cover it up until late that month, while tens of thousands of travellers left Wuhan on trains and planes for destinations beyond, potentially spreading it further.
This virus, which has claimed the lives of millions, needs a full-fledged investigation based on the science and the facts. Perhaps, it will be proved eventually that the virus, just like ebola, jumped from animals to humans and did not first pass through the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another laboratory.
Now it is extremely vital to dig the grave and find out the truth. The hints and evidences gathered from the probe is clearly pointing fingers towards China, but the country has refused to even consider the kind of rigorous probe that is necessary, deepening the suspicions that it has something to hide.