World Health Organisation investigators in Wuhan has uncovered signs that suggests that COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, was wider as at December 2019 than the initial belief, CNN reports.
The investigators have said that it would need to carry out a survey on thousands of blood samples from Wuhan, an effort that has been frustrated by the Chinese government.
Peter Ben Embarek who leads the WHO mission disclosed that the mission had come in contact of proofs pointing to several signs of the more wide-ranging 2019 spread and also stated that as at December, Wuhan had recorded over a dozen strains of the virus.
The team, who met with the first official patient, an office worker with no travel history noted that some truths were hidden from the world regarding COVID-19 cases in Wuhan.
Scientists have argued that the deadly virus was already ravaging China long before it was made known to other parts of the world. This new discovery by the team stands as a valid confirmation for such scientists who contended the December 8th date given by China as the day it recorded its first infection.
Ben Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN, “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”
Chinese specialists had earlier presented 174 cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan in December 2019.
Ben Embarek said it was possible this larger number of likely severe cases that had been noticed by Chinese doctors early on meant the disease could have hit an estimated 1,000-plus people in Wuhan that December.
“We haven’t done any modeling of that since. But we know, in big ballpark figures out of the infected population, about 15% end up severe cases, and the vast majority are mild cases.”
Ben Embarek said the mission, which comprised 17 WHO scientists and 17 Chinese, had broadened the type of virus genetic material they examined from early COVID-19 cases that first December. This allowed them to look at partial genetic samples, rather than just complete ones, he said.
As a result, they were able to gather for the first time 13 different genetic sequences of the SARS-COV-2 virus from December 2019. The sequences, if examined with wider patient data in China across 2019, could provide valuable clues about the geography and timing of the outbreak before December.
Ben Embarek said, “Some of them are from the markets. Some of them are not linked to the markets, which includes the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, thought to have played a role in the virus’ first spread. This is something we found as part of our mission, part of the interaction we had all together.”
The discovery of so many different possible variants of the virus could suggest it had been circulating for longer than just that month, as some virologists have previously suggested. This genetic material is likely the first physical evidence to emerge internationally to bolster such a theory.
Prof. Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney, in Australia, said, “As there was already genetic diversity in SARS-CoV-2 sequences sampled from Wuhan in December 2019, it is likely that the virus was circulating for a while longer than that month alone.
“These data fit with other analyses that the virus emerged in the human population earlier than December 2019 and that there was a period of cryptic transmission before it was first detected in the Huanan market.”
Ben Embarek also said the mission were able to meet the first COVID-19 patient that China said they knew of. A Wuhan resident in his 40s, the man has not been identified, and had no recent travel history.
“He has no link to the markets. We also spoke to him. He has a very, in a way, dull and normal life, no hiking in the mountains type of things. He was an office worker in a private company.”
China has pledged transparency with the WHO investigation. Responding to US criticisms that it should provide access to its earlier raw data, the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC said, “What the U.S. has done in recent years has severely undermined multilateral institutions, including the WHO, and gravely damaged international cooperation on COVID-19.
“But the U.S., acting as if none of this had ever happened, is pointing fingers at other countries who have been faithfully supporting the WHO and at the WHO itself.”