ON THE ROAD WITH PATIENT ZERO
….a journey into central China at the dawn of the Great Covid Pandemic
–Was the global coronavirus outbreak first detected in central China because of alert scientists and patients with pre-existing conditions: pollution, dirty food and water, shortages of family doctors and an abundance of bat-borne viruses?
–A foreign journalist, on a journey through central China in late 2019 with a villager from Jiangxi province, delves into the mysteries around his illness and the origins of the Great Covid Pandemic
(note: The South China Morning Post commissioned this story in early April for a magazine cover story. It was delivered on the due date of April 22 and thoroughly edited and fact-checked. The author filled job orders and worked on 12 drafts of this manuscript for more than 40 days straight. It is posted here in order for SCMP executives to see the links and photographic evidence to support each fact in the story.)
by Christopher Johnson
THERE was something going around in central China in early November 2019. I initially thought my problems were related to dirty food, amoebic water, filthy toilets, chronic fatigue, hypertension and dystopian levels of air pollution – normal conditions for people in China, where half of all men smoke and millions lack access to quality health care.
What were the “social determinants of health”, as medical professionals call these environmental conditions, doing to our bodies at the dawn of the Great Covid-19 Pandemic?
Outside the central train station in Changsha in Hunan province, a truck sprayed water into the sky to dissipate the smog obscuring buildings across the street. Afraid for my lungs, I sought filtered air in a shopping mall, which was deserted except for dozens of bored clerks who, despite years of dizzying GDP growth, still couldn’t afford the luxury items that surrounded them.
I had come to Changsha with my new girlfriend for a health conference. Now I was desperate to escape the dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5 particles. Thanks to China’s impressive rail network, I was only an hour away from Wuhan or five hours to Kunming and the caves of southwestern China, where virologists often capture bats before taking them to laboratories in Wuhan.
Instead, I took a slower train towards the sandstone pillars of Zhangjiajie, in the Wulingyuan forest park, a world heritage site near Hunan’s border with Hubei province.
I was surrounded by boisterous passengers enjoying the freedom to hack, cough and sneeze without covering their mouths or apologising.
Months before governments imposed lockdowns and social distancing rules, I isolated in Wulingyuan town in a small family hotel near a restaurant offering a giant salamander and other sad creatures in water containers on the street. Avoiding that place, I spent the next 48 hours dealing with diarrhea, fits of coughing, lack of appetite and a strange redness in my eyes.
A beautiful sunny day forced me out of bed to buy a three-day park pass, and I enjoyed an easy walk along the Golden Whip stream, away from the tourist throngs using cable cars.
It really hit me the next morning. An avid cyclist and tennis player at the age of 54, I’ve dealt with mountain sickness twice atop Mount Fuji, in Japan, and also above 4,000 meters in Mexico, Bolivia, Nepal and Tibet. But I felt chest pains and shortness of breath even before starting what should have been a 60-minute climb to Huangshi village, just 1,000 meters above sea level.
A friendly couple from Hubei helped me stagger up to the mountaintop temple, where I took a nap for an hour, too weak to climb a few more stairs for the panoramic view. On my way down, American exchange students asked if I was having a heart attack. Still panting on the bus, a kind-hearted driver dropped me near my hotel along the river.
After a hot shower and cups of tea, I was still shivering and short of breath. My mother, sister and cousins — all trained medical professionals in North America — couldn’t help me. I had no appetite and slept under heavy covers from 8pm till noon the next day, perhaps my longest sleep ever. It was November 8, seven weeks before Wuhan hospitals sent out a global warning about an “unknown pneumonia” that would become known as COVID-19, the worst pandemic in a century.
I was healthy enough last summer in England and Canada to play tennis two to three hours a day. Then I got a journalism visa for China and returned to Shanghai, my base two decades earlier while contributing to SCMP and other media. After photographing FIBA world cup of basketball matches in China during the sweltering heat of September, my tooth fell out. My friends told me to find a dentist at a public hospital in Shanghai. Though I waited in long lines and couldn’t get an appointment, I did come into contact with patients who perhaps shared an infection with me.
I also worried that my nagging diarrhea was somehow related to eating pork, a staple of Chinese cuisine. Many consumers were avoiding it because of fears that farmers and butchers were selling pigs that were supposed to be destroyed during an official campaign to eradicate swine flu, which was creating food shortages, driving up prices and threatening China’s GDP growth, only 6.9 per cent in 2019.
Hoping to regain health near beaches in Shandong province, I woke up on the 33rd floor of a hotel to see Qingdao’s skyscrapers shrouded in smog as thick as an Arabian sandstorm. On my way back to Shanghai, my Didi driver insisted on opening windows for “cooler air”, even in a tunnel. I dozed on the train behind a passenger sneezing and coughing. For the next several days, a throat infection restricted my vocal chords on stage during performances at Yuyintang, a popular rock club in Shanghai.
That’s where I saw Lily in the audience and invited her on stage to sing with us. For our first date two days later, she invited me to her village in Jiangxi province. I didn’t know much about Jiangxi. Neither did many foreign journalists who were then focused on the trade war with the United States, repression in Xinjiang province and travel advisories based on the detention of diplomats and expatriate workers on alleged espionage or drug charges.
“Don’t worry. The sky is blue not brown there,” Lily said, easing my concerns about smog and poor hygiene. “I’ll take you to the ‘health club’ I run.”
First, she wanted to take me to a “health conference” in Jinhua, Zhejiang province. We met at Shanghai’s Hongqiao station, cleared passport and baggage checks, and took a rapid train southwest to Jinhua with a change at Hangzhou’s space-age station.
On the way, we talked about how the super-speed trains have opened up China, to China. A rider can now go from Guangzhou to Beijing in eight hours, a journey that took me 24 hours in the green trains with crying babies and roosters in 1987. Now, with a phone and QR code linked via WeChat to a bank account, Lily can borrow a public bicycle and ride to the station in Shanghai to hop on a train for a three-hour ride to Jiangxi’s capital, Nanchang, 750km away. From there, we could keep going for another two hours to Wuhan, and then ride another 1500 kilometers over six hours on train G81 to Kunming, in Yunnan province, home of bats linked to coronaviruses.
The trains were full of domestic tourists and workers. Eighty million people – about 10 per cent of China’s workforce – are employed in the domestic travel industry, which created 28 million jobs in 2019, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Though many miners and manufacturers have moved operations out of China, hotel groups and travel sites such as Shanghai-based Ctrip.com have poured billions into the domestic economy.
The trains have also opened up trade routes for entrepreneurs such as Lily. Instead of commuting from central Shanghai to a suburb, she can share an apartment with other migrants in the centre of the city; stay with relatives in her native Yihuang, 800km away; and attend conferences in places such as Jinhua, where we joined 10,000 in an arena to hear testimonials about how single mothers could lose weight and buy Lamborghinis.
The “health conference” seemed more like a glamorous recruiting session to persuade Lily and other women to sell beauty products online. After staying with fellow villagers in the aptly-named Gread Hotel, Lily went for more indoctrination the next morning while I called friends in Shanghai to ask whether the public security bureau might detain us. “It’s not like an illegal cult. It’s just a multilevel marketing company,” said a streetwise friend. “It’s normal in central China. People need money any way they can get it.”
That afternoon, Lily and I took a train to Nanchang (population 5.3 million) while other delegates continued onto Wuhan (population 11 million). We rode for another 37 minutes to Fuzhou’s oversized new train station, which is within walking distance of nothing other than construction cranes. With few cars on wide boulevards adorned in red lanterns, we were grateful to see the stars.
A computer whiz who looks like Freddie Mercury picked us up and raced down a highway, affirming my belief that the more off-beat the place, the faster the drivers.
Reaching the spacious streets of Yihuang, I wanted to rest. But Lily’s friends, who hop around China on independent business, invited me to share a simmering pot of tofu, freshwater fish and chili peppers – which I like more than my stomach does. They refused to let the foreign visitor pay, so Lily went deeper into debt, pushing the banking sector a micro-step closer to the brink.
Lily’s “health club” was an oasis of white walls, eco-poetry and beds for massages, manicures or ear-wax removal. But behind the salon, in a common area beyond Lily’s control, was the filth of a developing nation in which the proletariat no longer want to do the dirty work yet can’t afford to pay somebody else to do it. The squat toilet reeked of neglect as I took a cold bath from a grungy bucket.
In the morning, birds sung from cages, cats cleaned up discarded food and rambunctious seniors played mahjong, slamming tables and smoking cigarettes. Instead of the peppers, tomatoes and funghi stored on the grimy floor, I opted for a breakfast of noodles in water boiled to kill bacteria. But some must have survived, nevertheless, sending me to the dreaded toilet, as Lily laughed at the weak foreigner who couldn’t handle reality in rural China.
Showing me empty temples around town, Lily was proud of her electric scooter. What she really wanted, though, was a car, to protect her from drivers who use their vehicle as a karaoke box or video game. Like 1950s America, China has built regional cities and towns with the motor car in mind.
Heavy machinery was digging up Yihuang’s muddy riverfront area, near a couple of budget hotels that function as gambling dens with mahjong tables in some rooms.
The construction work was part of central China’s push for a bigger share of the eco-tourism pie. In 2015, governments employees in the Jiangxi cities of Shangrao and Jian were told to take two Fridays off each month in order to travel over long weekends. Hunan, Chongqing, Hebei, Gansu, Shaanxi, Anhui and Fujian made similar calls, the South China Morning Post reported.
Hoping to draw 2.2 million overseas tourists to Jiangxi in 2018, authorities gave foreigners using Nanchang airport free entry to scenic spots such as Mount Lu, a World Heritage site. When disaster struck in July 2019, more than 530 rescuers helped save 285 hikers trapped by floods that killed four tourists near Yichun city. But domestic tourists continued to flock to Jiangxi to see its forests, white cranes, endangered finless porpoises and Poyang, the county’s largest freshwater lake.
While in Thailand, his first trip outside of China, Lily’s uncle saw the potential for tourism back home. So, instead of selling his land, he preserved his traditional wooden farmhouse and restaurant with ornate carvings in an orange grove on the edge of Yihuang to accommodate visitors, including party officials. Lily and I, enjoying gourmet meals and relaxing on satin sheets in a cozy matrimonial suit with Double Happiness signs, talked about expanding her uncle’s business to attract foreign tourists and keep the factories from gobbling up more farm land.
I admired Lily’s family and friends for at least trying to make something happen. Millions of migrants have returned to China’s 600,000 villages only to encounter hurdles related to corruption, which ultimately diverts funding away from rural development and health care.
At the community hospital in Yihuang, feverish patients without masks wandered around sharing illnesses while Lily went further into debt paying for a blood transfusion for her anaemic father.
Taking him home, we passed bamboo trucks and chemical factories on our way to a long stretch of apartments above shops.
“Your village looks like a city,” I said.
“But without people,” Lily said.
She explained that many people have left the village to work in urban centres while senior citizens take care of their children. Without parents watching over them, many kids play video games instead of going to school. But there was something special about one of her sons, a curious 11-year old who won my heart by helping a sinewy old farmer push his cart up a hill. Adopting the foreigner as his new father, he took me to rice paddies where buffaloes wallowed in mud and farmers dried their harvest on the road before carrying it home on their shoulders, in baskets.
Not far from a lone basketball rim, Lily’s father showed me the dilapidated structure of stone and bricks in which he raised Lily on meagre farming wages.
“I got married young in order to escape from here,” Lily explained as she posed for photos among weeds, bamboo poles and fading posters of Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders. “Someday I want to build a health-food restaurant here.”
Before sundown, she invited me to eat with the elderly couple who took care of her two sons. With music blasting out from inside the building, I stood outside their home wishing I was back at her uncle’s place. Lily insisted we join them. The door opened and we entered a room with vegetables, rice and wood on the grimy floor and bats flying around an open fire in a corner that served as the kitchen.
I explained, in a polite and respectful way, that I was not used to dining amid bat droppings.
A few days later, Lily took me to Changsha for another health conference, this one organised by Herbalife, a global company known for multilevel marketing. We posed for photos and shared a spicy Hunan dinner with several bright young people from Wuhan and Chengdu staying at an upmarket hotel. Lily and I then got lost in the smog of an intersection while looking for the room she had booked online. Feeling nauseous and irritable, we argued over directions, gave up and checked into the first place we could find — a hotel along a roaring highway.
Drinking beer and eating sunflower seeds, Lily was excited about Herbalife and the chance to do something about obesity, lung pollution and a growing health-care crisis. I warned her about a friend of mine in London who had unsold dietary products stacked high in her room. “It’s different in China,” Lily said. She insisted that these companies were in-line with Beijing’s policies to increase private sources of health care to take pressure off the state-funded system.
Indeed, China’s expenditure of 5 per cent of GDP on health care, about the same as Hong Kong and Singapore, and half that of Britain and Canada, wasn’t enough to take care of an ageing population, according to SCMP reports. Although the number of private hospitals in China has tripled in ten years to 21,000, most patients still flock to the highest-rated 1,400 public hospitals out of about 12,000 in total.
In March 2019, about 3,600 family doctors at a conference in Zhengzhou, Henan province, agreed there was an urgent need to increase the number of family doctors and clinics, especially in Wuhan. This would encourage patients to go to clinics instead of overcrowded hospitals, said Donald Li Kwok-tung, Hong Kong-based president of the World Organisation of Family Doctors, one of the conference organisers.
Lily was right. China needed more people like her in the health care system. The next morning, while she attended more seminars, I went out to find a restaurant. I could barely see the buildings across the street. The smog was like a forest fire, made in power stations and factories serving consumers around the world.
I couldn’t solely blame China, since I’m one of those consumers. I had also benefited from Beijing’s 4 trillion yuan stimulus package which helped to rescue the global economy after the 2008 financial crisis. But China’s massive construction projects and economic growth also resulted in dangerous levels of pollution that have sparked protests in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hubei and Guangdong provinces, as well as in Beijing. As SCMP reported, protesters forced officials to shutdown or relocate polluters in Xiamen, Fujian province in 2007; in Shanghai and Tianjin in 2015; and in Qingyuan, Guangdong province in 2017.
In 2013, state broadcaster CCTV reported that five incinerators in Wuhan were emitting toxic dioxins that could damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and cause cancer. The following year, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution”, but police later detained anti-pollution protesters in Wuhan who had written Li’s words on a banner, SCMP reported.
In late June and early July 2019, thousands rallied against plans to build an incinerator near the 300,000 residents of Xinzhou district, about 30km northeast of central Wuhan, with banners that read, “Air pollution will damage the next generation” and “Return us the green mountain and clear waters”.
“We understand the need to dispose of garbage in an environmentally friendly way, but does it have to be that close to our homes?” a protester told the SCMP. “Two universities and more than 10 residential areas are within a 3km radius.”
But the city government insisted that an incinerator, large enough to burn 2,000 tonnes of rubbish per day, was needed. Protestors later shot videos showing hundreds of riot police marching through the streets with helmets, shields and batons.
The BBC reported that officials ordered shops to close after 6pm — a foreshadowing of things to come.
Authorities tried to clean up Wuhan’s image ahead of hosting soldier-athletes from more than 100 nations for the seventh World Military Games, which ran between October 18 and 27.
Founded in Rome in 1995, the Games were a big deal in central China, starting with a torch relay in Nanchang on August 1, the 92nd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, according to media covering foreign delegations ahead of the event.
Organizers recruited hundreds of volunteers and built an athletes’ village that could house up to seven soldier-athletes in each of 2,000 rooms. Authorities also closed down places of worship and the Xinhua market, demolished old buildings, pushed out families and small businesses, dug up vegetable gardens along rail tracks, sealed off hotels and apartments near the stadium and shut down 100 factories to clean up the air and impress the foreign visitors, BitterWinter.org reported in August.
State broadcaster CGTN televised the opening ceremonies, which resembled the patriotic grandeur of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China’s National Day parade a few weeks earlier to celebrate the republic’s 70th anniversary. CGTN’s reporters introduced the mascot Bing Bing, a sturgeon who enjoys “parachuting and shooting”, and they gushed about Wuhan “being a city on the rise”.
“It’s a golden chance for the city to renovate itself,” said sportscaster Yan Qiang, noting Wuhan’s central location. “I think Wuhan is ready for a new era in its history.”
With President Xi Jinping watching, soldier-athletes — including 182 from USA, 152 from Italy and 111 from Iran — marched before 30,000 fans in the packed “Five Rings” stadium, which had been built “from scratch” in 700 days. Yet foreign sports media, who had been covering China’s dispute with the US National Basketball Association, largely ignored the Military Games except for a story about local spectators allegedly rigging the course to help the Chinese orienteering team, which was later disqualified.
China won the most medals (133 gold, 64 silver and 42 bronze) but the US team finished in a disappointing 35th place with no golds. US Army Sgt. 1st Class Maatje Benassi was leading the 50-mile women’s cycling race when she collided with another cyclist and fell. She crossed the finish line in last place with bruised ribs and a cracked helmet, the US Defense Department reported on its website.
Months later, many online commenters in the US and China accused Benassi and US military personnel of bringing the novel coronavirus to Wuhan. Benassi denied this, saying conspiracy theorists were trying to ruin their lives. While some Chinese officials and academics demanded the US government release health records of the soldier-athletes, Zhang Dingyu, chief physician at Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, told Southern Weekly that five sick athletes had malaria, not COVID19.
Elodie Clouvel, who won the pentathlon, told French media in March that she and her husband fell sick with the virus in Wuhan. “A lot of athletes at the World Military Games were very ill.”
Media in Spain quoted defense ministry sources in May saying four Spanish athletes had flu-like symptoms during and after the Wuhan Games.
Matteo Tagliariol, who won gold in fencing, said he and five other Italians sharing a room in the Wuhan athletes’ village got sick with symptoms similar to Covid-19, according to mainstream media reports in Germany and Italy.))))
Only a few days after the Games, I traveled alone toward the fresh air of Wulingyuan, while Lily returned from Changsha to Jiangxi for another alternative healthcare event. After surviving the mysterious attack on my respiratory system, I spent more days isolated in my hotel room before returning by bus and train to see Lily in Yihuang.
My paranoia about my health grew throughout November as I read reports about health workers in Inner Mongolia province exterminating rats and fleas and isolating at least two patients with pneumonic plague and two others diagnosed with bubonic plague, the disease known as the Black Death that spread across Asia and decimated half of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages. I had traveled through Inner Mongolia a decade earlier and didn’t realize that China had reported 11 plague deaths there between 2009 to 2018, according to Reuters.
I realised I had to take my health more seriously. Still sick after returning to Shanghai, I flew in December to Okinawa, Japan, where I finally felt strong enough to swim again. A receptionist at my hotel insisted on wearing a mask, saying many guests from China were sneezing and coughing. Later that month, as thousands of Chinese tourists celebrated New Year’s Eve across Japan, reports emerged of an “unknown pneumonia” in Wuhan.
From January onward, as Lily stayed home with family in Yihuang and thousands died in homes and hospitals across central China, I began to see my ill adventures in a new light. Did I get the virus during my trip and spread
it to others? Had I been close to Patient Zero? I couldn’t get tested for Covid-19 because Japan, protecting health care workers, would only test people with a high fever for at least four consecutive nights.
—— TRANSPORTATION HUB ——
The coronavirus outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, not in thousands of other cities and towns across China and southeast Asia that have wet markets selling wildlife alongside domesticated animals and seafood.
Why Wuhan, I wondered.
Wuhan, like north Italy and New York, has a large number of people with lung damage, due to smoking or chronic air pollution, that makes them vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.
When workers at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan felt short of breath last December, some blamed it on cigarettes, incinerators, and smoke inhalation from a fire at the market in mid-November, AFP reported. Others thought their flu-like symptoms were just something going around at the start of winter, since many people had – like me – been sick.
As patients poured into Wuhan hospitals, alert doctors and researchers began chatting online about a return of SARS or a mysterious new coronavirus which medical professionals might have overlooked in countries that didn’t experience SARS, Avian flu or other outbreaks first detected in China. Indeed, Wuhan has universities, hospitals and laboratories with some of the world’s leading scientists, both Chinese and foreign, who study SARS, MERS, Ebola, and other pathogens. Wuhan’s Center for Disease Control is only about a ten-minute walk to the Huanan market next to the Hankou high-speed rail station. The Wuhan Institute of Virology, the focus of global speculation about controversial lab experiments, is about 13 kilometers away.
China’s leading infectious disease expert, Zhong Nanshan, 83, who discovered the SARS virus in 2003 and continues to advise Beijing on lockdowns and pandemic policies, raised eyebrows worldwide by saying that “the occurrence of Covid-19 in Wuhan does not mean it originated in Wuhan.”
Indeed, the hyper-connected global transportation network, which can take a Wuhan resident almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours, could have been bringing the virus in or out of Wuhan for weeks or months before any official recognition of an epidemic. Thus researchers in Europe and North America began to re-examine medical records about what they thought were deaths or cases in 2019 attributed to flu, pneumonia, vaping or e-cigarettes. Comparing the covid pandemic to HIV, which went undetected for two decades in central Africa before millions began dying worldwide in the 1980s, they wondered if SARS-CoV-2 has been infecting humans for years.
In March 2020, SCMP saw government data suggesting doctors had observed symptoms in a 55 year-old from Hubei province on November 17. This means the patient could have contracted the virus in early November, while I was sick near Hubei. After that, doctors recorded one to five new cases each day in November, and officials identified at least 266 coronavirus patients by the end of December.
A hospital in Colmar in northeastern France studied 2500 chest scans since November 1 and announced on May 7 that their first coronavirus case, on November 16, spread through Christmas markets, resulting in a cluster at a nearby religious gathering in late February.)))
University of Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster, whose team studied the genetic mutations of strains from around the world, has calculated that the virus started spreading among humans between September 13 and December 7. “The virus may have mutated into its final ‘human-efficient’ form months ago, but stayed inside a bat or other animal or even humans for several months without infecting other individuals,” Forster said on April 16, SCMP reported. “I would say the original spread started more likely in southern China than in Wuhan.”
Indeed, virologists have been warning for years about the dangers of the wildlife trade and human populations in southern China expanding too close to bats whose viruses could trigger pandemics.
Shi Zhengli, who received a PhD from France’s Montpellier 2 University in 2000, travelled around China for 16 years building up a database on bat viruses, which led to her study in 2005 linking SARS to bats. Shi told Scientific American about how she trapped the nocturnal bats in nets to take samples of blood, saliva and feces, and then returned to the caves in the morning to collect urine and droppings.
On several trips over five years, Shi explored Shitou Cave near Xiyang town outside of Yunnan’s provincial capital Kunming, and brought samples back to her lab in Wuhan, about 1600 kilometers away. According to her study, posted on the US National Institute of Health’s website, the cave was a hot spot containing “all the genetic diversity found in other locations of China.”
In October 2015, her team took blood samples from 200 villagers near the cave and found that six of them had anti-bodies for a SARS-like coronavirus which had jumped from animals into humans. “You don’t need to be a wildlife trader to be infected,” she later told Scientific American.
That same year, USAID and the US National Institute of Health gave Peter Daszak, President of New York-based Eco Health Alliance, funding to work with the Wuhan University School of Health Sciences and Wuhan-based virologists to conduct projects in the “hotspot” of southern China where “people living close to bat habitats are the primary risk groups for spillover” of animal viruses into humans. Daszak, who authored the study, said the research would be “critical for the future development of public health interventions and enhanced surveillance to prevent the re-emergence of SARS or the emergence of a novel SARSr-CoV.”
From March to December 2015, the Wuhan-based researchers and local disease experts gave laundry detergent or a bottle of cooking oil in exchange for interviews with 88 people hunting, slaughtering or trading wild animals or living among bats roosting in roofs in nine rural sites in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. “There is a cave behind our house. There are always some people going inside the cave and catching bats for food,” a Guangxi farmer, age 60, told researchers. “Two bats flew into our room, so we caught them to eat.”
Five years later, Nature magazine on Feb. 3, 2020 posted Shi’s study claiming that a virus called RaTG13, taken from the Shitou Cave in Yunnan in 2013, was the “closest relative” to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, sharing 96 percent of its genome.
The landmark discoveries of virologists, however, have also raised questions about their handling of viruses from caves to labs and points in between. Some critics point to a 2004 photo, in Scientific American, of Shi releasing a bat after taking a blood sample in Guangxi province without gloves or other protective gear. Richard Ebright, chemistry professor at Rutgers University, who has been raising alarms about Wuhan labs for years, tweeted on March 12 that virologists are creating new opportunities for animal viruses “to enter human populations (through accidental infection of field-collection staff or accidental infection of laboratory staff).”
If an animal virus did spill over into someone in southern or central China, did Patient Zero take public transportation, infecting me or other passengers along the way? Contacted on Twitter, Daszak wouldn’t say how virologists transport viral samples from Yunnan caves to the labs of Wuhan, a two-day drive on mountain roads but only 6 hours by high speed train from Kunming to Wuhan via Changsha, where I was in early November.
When Shi had to hurry from a conference in Shanghai to Wuhan last December to study the viral outbreak, she used the high speed train, according to Scientific American.
Scientists, who often share samples between labs, have been sending pathogens around the world for years on public transport. CBC reported last August that Canadian police detained two Chinese scientists at a high-security lab in Winnipeg that reportedly sent the Ebola virus on an Air Canada commercial flight to Beijing on March 31, 2019.
Last December 9, the US Justice Department arrested a Chinese student at Boston’s Logan airport for allegedly trying to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. On Jan. 28 this year, they also arrested Dr. Charles Lieber, 60, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, on charges of lying about alleged payments for work with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and China’s Thousand Talents Plan from 2012 to 2017.
These arrests raise concerns that scientists are hopping between regions or countries without knowing they’ve been infected during their research.
Shanghai Media Group has posted a video on youtube showing how virologists in dark damp caves are exposed to dangerous pathogens when they trap, hold, inject, swab or study infected bats that can bite, scratch, bleed or urinate on them. In the seven-minute documentary, Tian Junhua, a chief technician at Wuhan’s Center for Disease Control, says he has found a “treasure trove” of more than 300 types of virus vectors in dozens of caves in “every corner of Hubei province” over the past 10 years. “We can easily get contact with the feces of bats which contaminate everything. So it is highly risky here,” he narrates in Mandarin, with English subtitles. “I can feel the fear. Fear of infections. Because when you find the viruses, you are also most easily exposed to the viruses.”
In the video, Junhua and a co-worker capture a squirming bat in a net, hold it with an instrument and, with gloved hands, move its head back to remove “a very special type of tick” before releasing the bat. Then they remove protective clothing and cook over a wood fire in the cave.
The video ends with a line saying Chinese have discovered nearly 2000 types of viruses over the last 12 years.
While this also means Chinese researchers are taking great risks, Daszak points out that virologists aren’t the only ones in dangerous proximity to bat droppings. East Asia has one to seven million exposed to bat viruses every year, he says. Indeed, a bat carrying a virus would only need close contact with one person, anywhere in the world, to begin a pandemic. From there, trains and planes can spread the virus worldwide within hours, ultimately killing people with pre-existing conditions related to the social determinants of their health.
Despite living in proximity to bats, Lily says that her family members never had symptoms of Covid-19. Dancing and smiling in WeChat videos, she laughs about the foreigner who fell sick from things that don’t bother her at all. The pandemic has only strengthened her commitment to beauty and wellness, and her belief in the ascendancy of China, which has lifted millions like her out of poverty.
As researchers continue to search for Patient Zero, I keep thinking about bats flying out of kitchens and all those coughing and sneezing train passengers.
—– 30 ——
((MORE LINKS of RESEARCH))
https://youtu.be/qXvogAz26sA (opening ceremony on CGTN)
(((Links re: Wuhan Military Games)))
https://youtu.be/qXvogAz26sA (opening ceremony on CGTN)