Back in late May, the Chinese government surprised the world when Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, declared that research showed no connections between food sold in Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market and the coronavirus. But that conclusion aligned with research indicating some of the virus’s earliest cases could not be traced back to the market, and the fact that there was no evidence that this particular market sold bats or pangolins, the two species considered most likely to be the source of SARS-CoV-2. (Other wet markets in China do sell those animals.)
But this morning, the South China Morning Post — an institution that is not directly controlled by the Chinese government, but usually toes the government’s line — suggests that the investigation into the origin of the virus is likely to focus, at least in part, upon the market: “A World Health Organization investigation that kicked off in October will now look again at the market to try and reconstruct the outbreak, as Beijing promotes a view that the virus could have originated outside China. Researchers say the mission will need access to information that has not been made public about what was found at the market.”
According to the document, none of the frozen carcasses tested positive, while 69 of 842 environmental samples did. But beyond these numbers, little information is available about which animals were sampled and the extent of follow-up studies on humans and animals linked to the market. China has not disclosed if live animals were among those sampled.
It is possible that the virus originated elsewhere — oh, let’s say, either of the two virology labs in the city that were studying coronaviruses in bats! — and then someone who was infected with the virus visited the market and spread it further. But the Chinese government might want to steer the investigation back to the market for a different reason. Beijing really wants to convince the world that frozen food is a reliable method of spreading the virus, and that SARS-CoV-2 came from somewhere beyond their borders.
Packaging first became a major issue with outbreaks in China linked to wholesale food markets, including one in June on the outskirts of Beijing. That prompted the removal of smoked salmon from supermarket shelves and has snowballed into multiple cases nationwide involving chicken, beef and seafood from nearly two dozen countries. At some supermarkets, imported meat now comes with a sticker declaring it to be virus-free.
Infections among freight handlers have also placed suspicion on packaging. Person-to-person transmission hasn’t been ruled out, however, and China has yet to release evidence that packaging was indeed the route of infection.
Trading partners, including the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and the EU, say they’re unclear on China’s methodology and have seen no solid evidence that their products carried the virus. The U.S. has questioned whether China’s crackdown is scientifically based and suggested the bans may amount to an unfair trade barrier.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the World Health Organization said cases of live viruses being found on packaging appear to be “rare and isolated.” While the virus can “survive a long time under cold storage conditions,” there is no evidence of people contracting COVID-19 from consuming food, it said.
Last month, Chinese state-run media sources started touting the idea that the virus came to Wuhan from somewhere in India — a regional strategic rival.
The World Health Organization has not covered itself in glory during its dealings with China in this pandemic. Let’s see if WHO wastes time looking at improbable theories about the virus jumping into humans from frozen food from India.