Infection Route still Unknown Year after Confirmation of 1st COVID-19 Case in China

Koki Kataoka / The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Wuhan Keting-Chinese Culture Expo Center in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei Province, has been showing a special exhibition on China’s fight against the COVID-19 epidemic. In this photo taken on Dec. 1, a sign is seen with a slogan meaning “Put people and life first.”

WUHAN, China — Tuesday marked one year since Chinese authorities were said to have confirmed in Wuhan, Hubei Province, the first case of pneumonia triggered by what is now known as the novel coronavirus.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration already recounting the Communist Party-led “heroic war” to contain the virus, questions still remain about from where and how the virus spread.

■ Propaganda in full swing

The Wuhan Keting-Chinese Culture Expo Center in the heart of the city was used as a makeshift hospital in February and March when the spread of infections was severe. The former frontline site is now hosting a special exhibition about China’s fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, an event sponsored by Chinese authorities.

Stepping inside the hall, visitors are welcomed by a signboard that praises the Communist Party’s Central Committee “with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core” for uniting the people of China and “creating a remarkable feat in humankind’s struggle against diseases.”

The first section of the exhibition presents instructions given by Xi on the pandemic in chronological order.

“As a resident of Wuhan, I’m proud that so many heroes faced difficulties without fear and saved people’s lives,” said a man in his 40s who became choked up with tears as he and his 5-year-old daughter visited the section that commemorates medical workers who lost their lives due to the infection.

However, a woman in her 30s responded coldly to the exhibition: “All mishaps end up becoming a tool to praise the Communist Party. It’s just the way it always is.”

The Chinese government is stepping up surveillance to silence the voices of some bereaved families who have been frustrated with the government’s response to the pandemic and prevent them from taking legal action.

Now that the party is touting its handling of the novel coronavirus, it does not want any opinions that do not fit with its success story.

■ ‘Wuhan virus’ debate

At a virtual press conference held Nov. 27, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not hide his irritation at the barrage of questions about when the WHO would enter Wuhan for field investigations, mainly from reporters belonging to Western media.

“In the study of the origin of the virus, one thing that has to be clear is the study will start from Wuhan in China, where the first report came from, and then from there, based on the findings, we can go anywhere,” Tedros said. “So I think it’s better to really underline that.”

There are high expectations that the WHO’s full-scale investigation in Wuhan will settle the dispute between countries including the United States that point to Wuhan as the origin of the virus they dub the “Wuhan virus” and China, which rejects the claim. However, there appears to be no prospect of any investigation to follow those conducted in February and July.

It has been determined that the man who developed the disease on Dec. 8, 2019 — said to be the first case in Wuhan — did not go to the Huanan seafood wholesale market, which was initially suspected to be the source of the outbreak. The virus was not detected in wildlife samples from the market either.

Based on such collateral evidence, Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is among those who argue that China is not necessarily the source of the virus.

■ Discrepancies remain

“Many doctors, including myself, were convinced of human-to-human transmission by the first half of January at the latest,” said a male doctor in his 50s at Wuhan’s core hospital.

Chinese authorities first announced the outbreak of “pneumonia of unknown origin” on Dec. 31, 2019. It was not until Jan. 20 that they officially acknowledged human-to-human transmission. However, according to this doctor, the medical profession had presumed person-to-person infection before that time.

Reports from citizens and medical professionals show there had already been a surge of medical consultations in Wuhan with people reporting fevers, coughs and other cold-like symptoms in early December last year.

According to a woman in her 40s who lives near the seafood market, where an initial concentration of infected people was reported, there was a line at a clinic near the market from the first half of December.

“I thought it was just a cold that was going around during the season,” she recalled.

Had infections already begun at that point? Were initial cases handled appropriately?

Wuhan residents have not yet received answers to these questions, but there was a media report that could rekindle doubts about the reliability of the announcements made by Chinese authorities.

CNN reported Dec. 1 that it had obtained a Hubei Province “internal document” according to which China underreported the number of coronavirus cases and the death toll from COVID-19. The public report released on Feb. 10 claimed there were 3,911 new COVID-19 cases in the province, including suspected cases, but the internal document is said to show that Hubei authorities actually were aware of 5,918 cases.