The Morning Jolt

World

We’re Still Learning About the Pandemic’s Early Days

Hospital staff in protective garments walk at a checkpoint to the Hubei Province exclusion zone at the Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, February 1, 2020. The banner reads: “Committed to the fight to prevent and control the epidemic.” (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: California drops a bombshell, confirming that the first American death from coronavirus occurred February 6, not February 28; a long look at the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019, weeks before the known start date of the virus outbreak; and a good proposal for accountability in U.S. policies regarding China.

Maybe the Coronavirus Was Floating Around America Earlier Than We Thought

This discovery out in California is pretty significant. This doesn’t verify all of the “I had a bad flu in November or December — I’ll bet I had coronavirus” self-assessments, but it does remind us that a lot of what we know about this virus and the spread of it can and should be revised with new information.

Medical officials in California’s Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, indicated late Tuesday that the first U.S. death connected to the coronavirus happened weeks earlier than previously believed.

Two deaths on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 were not initially thought to have been COVID-19-related, but further testing has revealed that they were, the county medical examiner said Tuesday.

“Today, the Medical Examiner-Coroner received confirmation from the CDC that tissue samples from both cases are positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19),” the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner said in a statement.

A fatality reported by officials in Washington state Feb. 29 was initially thought to be the earliest U.S. death from the novel coronavirus.

Keep in mind, that first death is three weeks before the U.S. confirmed its first case of unknown origin back on February 26. This means the virus was probably spreading around some California communities in early February, perhaps even late January. The first known U.S. case was announced back in January 21, in a person who had returned from travel to Wuhan January 15, in Washington State. Santa Clara is not near Washington, and so far there’s no indication that these two deaths in Santa Clara can be tied to that traveler who lived 860 miles away. Were there more asymptomatic cases coming into California in January? Were there more asymptomatic cases coming into other places in the United States in January?

A lot is at stake as we try to piece together those first carriers and the early spread of the virus. It is not overstating it to say the way the world thinks about and remembers this virus and its terrible human toll depends upon what we can uncover about its origins.

The Coronavirus and the World Military Games in October

In all of the hubbub of mid-March, as the scale of the danger of SARS-CoV-2 and the far-reaching shutdown of American live became clear, it was easy to miss Lijian Zhao, spokesman for the foreign ministry of China, making Twitter accusations that the virus was a U.S. bioweapon. Even easier to miss was his tweet linking to a paper contending the virus was linked to U.S. attendance at the Military World Games, which took place in Wuhan in October 2019. (That paper has since been taken down from the web.)

The 7th World Military Games, an Olympic-style competition, was held in Wuhan and began October 18 and ended October 27. The event was a big one for the city and for China, complete with elaborate opening and closing ceremonies. “More than 9,000 athletes from over 100 countries competed in more than 27 sports, a record number of participants. This year’s games also presented a number of other firsts: the first time the games were staged outside of military bases, the first time the games were all held in the same city, the first time an Athletes’ Village was constructed, the first time TV and VR systems were powered by 5G telecom technology, and the first use of all-round volunteer services for each delegation.”

At the end of March, the state-run Global Times newspaper claimed that the coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, was in fact manufactured in a U.S. military lab and brought to China by a cyclist who took part in the World Military Games. They cited the work of a man they labeled an “investigative journalist,” who in 2017 contributed to the brief shutdown of part of the port of Charleston, S.C., over a false claim of a dirty bomb on a container ship.

One Chinese publication contended that “the location of the US Guest House in the Military Games is not far from the South China Seafood City” — the now-infamous Huanan Seafood Market that the Chinese government contends is the source of the virus. Characterizing the U.S. team as “soy sauce soldiers” — weak — the publication wrote, “the always strong American soldiers did not perform as well as the community security in the military games. When something goes wrong, there must be a demon. In addition, after the end of the Military Games, the United States suddenly tightened the Chinese visa to the United States. If these soy sauce soldiers are biochemical soldiers, then all the problems can be solved.” (That’s run through Google translate.)

That cyclist, by the way, is Army Sergeant 1st Class Maatje Benassi. She was hit from behind and crashed in her final lap — bruising her ribs and cracking her helmet– but still finished eighth in her competition. Those who think she achieved all of that while carrying a secret U.S. bioweapon in her body must believe she is downright superhuman.

Elsewhere at World Military Games, the Chinese team in the middle-distance orienteering competition was disqualified for “extensive cheating.” (The idea of the Chinese merely lying about previous preparation of an orienteering course seems so quaint now.)

The earliest anyone has dated a case of the coronavirus is November 17, according to unspecified “government data” cited by the South China Morning Post. (For what it’s worth, that newspaper is considered pretty sympathetic to Beijing and could have good sources.)

From that date onwards, one to five new cases were reported each day. By December 15, the total number of infections stood at 27 — the first double-digit daily rise was reported on December 17 — and by December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60.

The first verified case cited in a medical journal described the onset of symptoms on December 1, in the account in The Lancet.

It is worth noting that as seen with the California news above, the more the world studies the coronavirus, the more it realizes what it thought it knew wasn’t necessarily true. It is conceivable that somewhere out there, someone contracted the coronavirus before December 1, or even before November 17. But right now, any theory of the spread that assumes this virus jumped into humans significantly earlier than December is writing checks that the available evidence can’t cash.

One research paper by a group of virologists affiliated with Chinese research labs as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of California San Diego, studied the genome of the virus strains, trying to determine when the virus jumped into humans. They wrote, “our results also suggest that the virus originated on November 24, 2019, which is in further agreement with our earlier studies.”

(Also note these researchers concluded, “the human SARS‐CoV‐2 virus, which is responsible for the recent outbreak of COVID‐19, did not come directly from pangolins.” To summarize a lot of writing in the past month, the “lab accident” theory is extremely unlikely if the virus had to jump through pangolins, and more possible (but far from proven) if it could jump directly from bats.)

The incubation period of SARS-CoV-2 — the amount of time between the initial infection and the onset of symptoms — can range anywhere from two to eleven days, according to researchers at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. The absolute earliest you could get any initial infection of Patient Zero — eleven days from the date cited by the source of the South China Morning Post — is November 6. That is nine days after the military games ended in Wuhan.

Some might well turn China’s conspiracy theory around and accuse the host country of attempting to infect a new virus into military personnel of 110 countries around the world, right before they returned to their home countries. In addition to military personnel from the United States, the games in Wuhan hosted military personnel from almost all of the NATO countries, South Korea, bordering countries like Russia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Vietnam, and quite a few countries in Africa, where the local health-care systems would be terribly unprepared for a threat on the scale of SARS-CoV-2. If SARS-CoV-2 had quietly spread among the military personnel at the games in Wuhan before they returned, the host country could have set off a health crisis in the ranks of military forces all around the world.

I’m as up for a good “China-as-villain” narrative as the next guy, but the known facts just don’t fit this theory. For starters, as far as we know, no athletes who participated in the games in Wuhan have been diagnosed with coronavirus — and that’s not the sort of information that could be easily suppressed simultaneously by lots of militaries around the world. The timeline doesn’t fit, even with lengthy incubation period. And even if the Chinese military did want to set off some sort of terrible bioweapons attack on the militaries of the world, there would be no way to ensure they didn’t get exactly the kind of disaster that befell their own country and civilians. If a malevolent government was going to do something like this, it would make much more sense to do it at a global military event even they weren’t hosting — and particularly not when they were hosting the military games in a city with two separate laboratories researching coronaviruses in bats.

For those wondering how the personnel on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier got infected, it is believed the soldiers initially caught the virus during a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, on March 5.  “Dozens of sailors had spent at least one night in a hotel where two British nationals tested positive for the virus.”

ADDENDUM: James Durso writes in an interesting op-ed in The Hill that it is time for Congress to hold hearings on lobbyists and Chinese efforts to influence and alter American policies:

Congress can hold productive hearings about lobbying by public and private Chinese entities, Beijing’s funding of Confucius Institutes at colleges and gifts to think tanks and universities the government sometimes refers to for expert advice. It can also examine Chinese involvement in U.S. entertainment and media companies and the technology sector and predatory investment in distressed U.S. companies suffering from the pandemic-induced slowdown. There’s also the long-standing U.S. reliance on China for rare earth elements and what can be done to encourage production in North America.

Go for it, Congress. There’s a real chance for bipartisan cooperation on this one.

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