Tag Archives: Wuhan

The Intriguing Tale Of The Unnoticed Data From Wuhan’s Wet Markets

OUR MAN WHO digitally thumbs through the dusty tomes of academic journals sends word of a research paper that disappeared from view for 15 months but which, had it not been caught up in the void that can be academic publishing, could have been instrumental in the early days of Covid-19 in helping determine the origins of the virus.

This is a story of misfortune more than malfeasance. The paper was neither suppressed nor censored, Nor, in itself, would it have pinpointed the virus’s origins. Yet the data it contained, had it been known about, would have furnished support for the theory that the pandemic’s origins lay in zoonotic transmission to humans from wildlife sold in Wuhan’s wet markets,

China’s Centre for Disease Control had said before the central information clampdown in January 2020 that it had discovered traces of coronavirus in the sections of the Huanan market where the data was collected. Crucially, the data would have allowed health researchers early on to narrow their search to the species being sold and eliminated bats and pangolins, two early suspects.

Yet this data remained overlooked — unknown might be a better description — until it was eventually published in June as an academic paper in Scientific Reports, an online open-access but peer-reviewed academic journal of the German-British publisher Springer Nature.

For two and a half years, until stopped by the outbreak of Covid-19 in November 2019, Dr Xiao Xiao, a Chinese virologist working in the field of animal conservation, systematically catalogued live wild animal sales in 17 shops across four of Wuhan’s wet markets, including the Huanan seafood market that authorities shut down on January 1, 2020.

It is known that some of the earliest cases of Covid-19 were people working at market stalls from which Xiao regularly collected data.

Xiao is attached to the Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, China West Normal University in Nanchong and the Hubei University of Chinese Medicine in Wuhan. He was not researching coronaviruses but a deadly tick-borne infection, SFTS (Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome), that had broken out in Hubei province in 2009-10.

However, his monthly data collection built up a picture of which species were being sold in Wuhan’s wet markets in the run up to the outbreak of Covid-19, in what quantity and whether the individual animals had been farmed or caught (usually illegally) in the wild. Of the 38 species he came across over the two and a half years of his research, 31 are protected.

Xiao realised the potential usefulness of his data to those looking for the origins of Covid-19. In January 2020, he teamed up with a colleague at China West Normal University and three scientists from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to produce a paper containing his serendipitous data set. This outlined the range and extent of fundamentally illegal wildlife trading in Wuhan markets pre- COVID-19 and the unhygienic conditions in which that trade was conducted, including the butchering.

To give the paper timely relevance, it ruled out pangolins and bats as the source of the pandemic. Though both are know reservoirs for coronaviruses in the wild, the former are no longer much traded in China, and the latter are not typically eaten in Central China. Xiao had come across neither for sale.

The authors twice revised their paper following peer review, but after six months, as can happen in academic publishing, it was rejected as being of too narrow interest. The political debate around the origins of the virus had by then moved on to contesting theories about escapes from laboratories in China and the United States and imports of foreign frozen seafood and European minks.

The authors then submitted their paper to Scientific Reports in October 2020.

Following its routine practice, Springer sent a copy to the World Health Organisation, but that seemingly languished unread in a WHO email box with thousands of other unpublished submissions. A copy sent to the Covid-19 team similarly failed to stand out among the welter of reports it was receiving.

The paper was still languishing unread when the WHO finally sent an inspection team to Wuhan in February 2021. Though members of the team visited the Huanan market, the trail was cold. They were also told that no illegal live animals were sold there. Authorities produced long-standing shoppers to attest to the point. Had the WHO inspectors had Xiao’s data, they could have contested that assertion.

As the final version of the paper published in June says:

Furthermore, the WHO reports that market authorities claimed all live and frozen animals sold in the Huanan market were acquired from farms officially licensed for breeding and quarantine, and as such, no illegal wildlife trade was identified. In reality, however, because China has no regulatory authority regulating animal trading conducted by small-scale vendors or individuals, it is impossible to make this determination.

China has extensive regulation of illegal wildlife trading, but the report makes it abundantly clear that its enforcement in Wuhan was lax in the extreme. Local officials’ scrubbing clean of the Huanan market in early January may have been more about covering that up that than anything directly related to the virus’s origins.

The statement by the Hubei provincial government in April 2020 that the sale of live wild animals and poultry would be strictly prohibited as markets re-opened in Wuhan may be a tacit admission of this.

.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics & Society

Covid-19 Spike Continues To Demand Careful Management

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS ARE increasing, and lockdowns are being reimposed as the outbreak of Covid-19 that started in Nanjing reaches 15 provinces.

Beijing has suspended inbound travel by rail, bus and air from infected areas. Wuhan, where the first Chinese cases were detected in 2019, is to test its entire population after a handful of cases were reported there.

In Zhangjiajie, a popular tourist destination in Hunan where a theatre was the site of a superspreader event, all places of entertainment have been shut down.

The latest outbreak was first detected on July 20 in Nanjing, with two cleaners of a passenger flight from Russia falling ill.

Reported numbers of cases remain relatively small, especially compared to other countries where daily infections are in the thousands. On Tuesday, health officials reported 90 new cases from the day before, 61 caused by local transmission.

In all, 328 locally transmitted cases were reported in July, as many as in the previous five months, according to state media. Total Delta variant related cases in this outbreak have now topped 400.

However, more than 100 new locally transmitted infections have been reported for the first two days of August. The pace of the spread is picking up rapidly, as is to be expected given the contagiousness of the Delta variant.

This is leading epidemiologists to expand their definition of close contact to include anyone in the same space, workplace, or building as an infected person up to four days before.

However, in Nanjing, the strict countermeasures already taken, including citywide testing, stringent controls on those entering and leaving the city and the sealing off of medical facilities for the aged, seem to be containing the outbreak. Daily new cases are back down to low double figures.

Managing the narrative of successful management of the spike remains a political imperative, as is countering doubts about the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines against so called breakthrough infections of the vaccinated.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics & Society

Biden Ups Ante For More WHO Investigation Of Covid Origins

PUT THIS IN the really, really annoying to Beijing column: US President Joe Biden is giving air to theories that a laboratory accident in Wuhan caused the global Covid-19 pandemic. More potentially irritatingly for Beijing, the Biden administration appears to be laying the groundwork for further international investigation into the virus’s origin, which would undercut the narrative China is promoting around its vaccine diplomacy.

Biden is not backing the lab-leak theory but says that the US intelligence community cannot reach a view with any confidence on whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or as a result of a laboratory accident. Biden has asked for a follow-up report from his intelligence services within 90 days, which he hopes will “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”.

In recent days, US media have run stories resurrecting the lab escape theory, likely based on the US intelligence reports supporting that view. These reports cited three Wuhan Institute of Virology workers who were hospitalised in November 2019. However, there is no hard evidence about whether they were infected by the virus and, if they were, where they contracted it.

The reports have been brushed aside by Beijing. It continues to suggest that the virus could have come from a US laboratory.

Biden also says that he will keep pressing China to take part in a ‘full, transparent, evidence-based’ international investigation. Given how long it took for the World Health Organisation to get access to Wuhan for its investigation earlier this year and the rancour directed at Australia for pushing the WHO in that direction, Biden’s call for another international investigation will likely fall on deaf ears.

The WHO’s report, published in March, said it was extremely unlikely that the virus emerged from a laboratory — a view that former President Donald Trump has espoused vigorously — but acknowledged that further study was needed. The Biden administration has said from the get-go that it will not accept the conclusions of any WHO report that its intelligence services cannot verify.

The day before Biden’s comments, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, called on the WHO to launch that second phase of its research. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian says the United States should open its bio labs around the world to an international WHO team.

Leave a comment

Filed under China-U.S.

Weaving The Wuhan Narrative

THE FOUR-YEAR PRISON sentence handed down to Zhang Zhan by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on December 28 for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ under article 293 of China’s penal code by dint of her citizen journalism on conditions in Wuhan in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak is intended to be chilling of anyone challenging the official narrative of China’s response to the pandemic.

Beijing is not just glossing over missteps and dissembling by local officials, arguably inevitable in the ‘fog of war’ of an unfolding pandemic. It is laying out a national portrayal of a system of governance that handled a public health crisis with competence and compassion, and intended to stand in contrast to the chaos and inadequacy displayed by the United States in particular.

The death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor castigated by the local government for warning about the virus and who then died of it, allowed the government to recast a muzzled whistle-blower as a fallen hero. However, other critics of Beijing’s initial response in the press or on social media have been silenced or censored. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities have detained several activists and citizen journalists for independently reporting on the pandemic.

Perversely, the same day that Zhang was tried and convicted, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data suggesting that the scale of infection in Wuhan had been much greater than initially disclosed.

Extrapolating the results of a nationwide serological survey conducted by the CDC in April implies that as many as 500,000 residents of the city may have been infected. That would be tenfold the 50,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases reported by health authorities by the middle of that month, although the official count does not include asymptomatic cases.

The data also suggest that the draconian lockdown of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province effectively limited the spread of the virus within China. In six other cities and provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, the serological survey revealed extremely low prevalences of the virus.

However, the ability to enforce a complete lockdown on a city of 11 million people and a further 47 million in the surrounding province would not be the governance competency message that Beijing might wish to promote.

1 Comment

Filed under Media, Politics & Society

A Glimmer Of Normalcy Returns To Hubei

Rice being packaged in Dangyang, Hubei Province on March 22, 2020. Photo credit: Xinhua/Cheng Min

LOCKDOWN RESTRICTIONS IN Hubei province have started to be lifted with limited outbound travel connections being established. The same will happen for Wuhan on April 8, officials say, another indication that authorities believe the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak has passed.

The past week has brought only one new recorded case in Wuhan, which has been in quarantine since the middle of January. (Asymptomatic cases are no longer being reported in the numbers.)

Medical teams drafted into Hubei from other provinces to help combat the outbreak are starting to return home and large-scale industry to resume work. Spring planting has commenced in rural areas, and a limited number of the province’s tourist attractions are reopening, too, albeit with strict infection control measures in place.

Managing the pace of the return to some sort of normalcy will be critical to preventing a renewed wave of community transmissions of the infection.

Update: Authorities have imposed a ban on incoming travellers to the country to mitigate the risk of imported Covid-19 infections, which are now the main source of new cases.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics & Society

Containing Wuhan Coronavirus Gets More Challenging

A nurse from Changchun in Jilin Province seen on January 26, 2020 as she prepares to leave for Hubei province to help coronavirus control efforts there. Photo credit: Xinhua/Zhang Nan.CONFIRMATION THAT PATIENTS with the Wuhan Coronavirus can be infectious before their symptoms show and that the incubation period can be up to two weeks are setbacks for authorities’ attempts to contain the outbreak.

It makes the strategies of isolating patients to minimize the spread of the disease and temperature monitoring of travellers less effective.

Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak is on lockdown, many other cities have had travel restrictions imposed and travellers have to undergo temperature screening. Meanwhile, mass New Year events have been cancelled across the country. Towns in and around Wuhan have been described as ghost towns as residents heed official calls to stay inside.

Yet hundreds of thousands of travellers had been on the move before such measures were imposed, potentially making the scale of the outbreak far more extensive than first thought.

Ma Xiaowei, head of the National Health Commission, says the ability of the new respiratory virus to spread appears to be strengthening, without providing any clarification of what he meant. It may be that the virus is mutating in that way, or it could just be that the new information makes the containment more difficult.

Some 2,000 (Update: Nearly 3,000) cases of the new virus, officially named 2019-nCoV, have been confirmed and at least 56 (Update: 80) people have died, mostly elderly with pre-existing conditions but also including one doctor who was treating patients. The new coronavirus is similar to (about 85% identical) but distinct from the SARS virus, according to an academic study by Chinese researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Army medical teams and doctors and nurses from other provinces have been drafted into Wuhan, where hospitals are under stress and running short of supplies. Reports say that more than 3,000 extra medical personnel have arrived. Two new emergency hospitals are being rapidly constructed. Medical supplies being imported to meet domestic shortages, particularly of masks and protective suits.

Further control measures include a nationwide suspension of sales of wild animals; the outbreak is believed to have started in the Huanan seafood and animal market in Wuhan. Media are also being reminded that they have their part to play in containing the outbreak through responsible reporting. The limits to transparency are being established.

On Saturday, President Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee — the top leadership — that set up a leading group headed by Premier Li Keqiang to take control of the response. That is a step up in centralisation and politicisation from the previous national-level response. That was at State Council and National Health Commission level.

One of the leading group’s first actions was to extend the New Year’s holiday for an indeterminate period (Update: by three days to February 2) as part of the control measures on travel and to indicate that there would be further restrictions on individuals’ freedom of movement. The start of the spring semester at educational institutions from universities to kindergartens has been postponed until further notice.

Leading officials have also been told that they ‘must stand at the frontline’. As we said previously, politically, the prize and penalties for how this disease ends up being handled are significant, not just for China internationally but domestically, too.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics & Society

Wuhan Coronavirus Will Prove Test For Xi And Party

THERE IS A lot more at risk from the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak than the health of thousands of infected people, critical though that is.

Top-level authorities have now moved swiftly and decisively to contain the outbreak, staking the Party’s reputation for purposeful social management for the public good — one of its justifications for its monopoly on power — on a successful outcome. President Xi Jinping told CCTV earlier this week that ‘people’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed’. It was, he said, ‘extremely crucial’ that every possible measure was taken to combat the virus.

In that sense, he now ‘owns’ the crisis. Local officials may get blamed, demoted or sacked for being slow to ‘fess up to the outbreak initially, but failure to contain it will now fall squarely on the shoulders of Xi and central government.

The mishandling and initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, so roundly criticised internationally, will be fresh in the minds of officials high and low. This time the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, once the initial slowness of Wuhan municipal authorities to recognise and respond to a potential public health emergency had passed.

Doctors followed a standard protocol for detecting new viruses, and, taking advantage of new techniques, quickly mapped its genome and passed the details to international health authorities. The sharing of information internationally has allowed timely monitoring and treatment of arrivals abroad of travellers from Wuhan. As a result, at this point, the outbreak is a Chinese, not a global emergency.

Domestically, central government took control of responding to the outbreak from municipal governments. A coordinating team was set up at the top level. Transport to, from and within Wuhan and nearby Huanggang was shut down, effectively locking down cities of 11 million and 7 million people respectively. In all, eight cities around Wuhan have had restrictions on free travel imposed.

World Health Organization officials called the quarantining of whole cities an unprecedented response to a public health crisis. Few other if any systems of government would have the capacity to implement such abrupt and draconian measures.

Whether such a cordon sanitaire, so to speak, will prove effective, given that an infected person may have passed on the infection to another before showing symptoms themselves of being ill, is yet to be seen. The mass travelling of the Lunar New Year holiday will provide an exacting test.

With public gatherings and events cancelled as well, there will, self-evidently, be significant localised economic impact. Managing that will also be a repetitional challenge for the Party, but one relatively easily met with money.

As with the H7N9 avian flu virus in 2013, widespread internet use domestically and the demands of the international community are likely to force transparency on this issue. The more significant political challenge for Xi will be how an authoritarian system, made more authoritarian by his reforms, copes in a case in which such transparency is essential for an effective response.

The press has now been allowed uncommon freedom to report the outbreak. Where the boundaries of that easing of censorship lie are also yet to be tested and only likely to be so cautiously. The primacy of the official narrative will not be ceded.

The People’s Daily underlines the bigger question at stake: how China handles the outbreak, it said in an editorial, ‘is a test for China’s governance system and capability’. But it will be a test of more than just governmental competence and the health services ability to cope. The outbreak is revealing how surprisingly stretched are the resources of China’s hospitals.

It is still too early to know  how widespread the social and political impact of the Wuhan coronavirus proves to be or how long-lasting, but the penalties for Xi and the Party for not passing this test will be significant both domestically and internationally. But so, too, will be the prizes for success.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics & Society

Wuhan Effectively Quarantined As Coronavirus Estimate Doubles

Wuhan skyline seen in 2018. Photo credit: Majorantarktis. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

THE TEAM AT the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London that first suggested that the numbers of those infected with the Wuhan Coronavirus had been significantly undercounted has now increased to 4,000 its estimate of how many are sick with the virus.

The more than doubling of the original estimate is based on re-running the initial calculations using the now-known higher number of confirmed international cases, which is the basis for the model. The first estimate assumed three known international cases. That number has risen to at least seven. Hong Kong has just reported the first two cases there.

The scientists caution that the doubling of their estimates ‘should not be interpreted as implying the outbreak has doubled in size’, just their estimation of it. Certainly, authorities have increased both detection and reporting in recent days, which is one reason that the reported numbers have been rising rapidly.

The gap between the new estimate and the number of reported and suspected cases suggests the outbreak, even if contained, is far from over, and especially as human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.

Meanwhile, Wuhan has been as good as quarantined with transport within the city shut down, ferries and long-distance buses suspended and the airport and train stations closed, all indefinitely. Authorities had already told people not to travel to or from the city, regardless of the forthcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, called the transport ban a “very strong measure” to control the outbreak domestically and internationally. The WHO’s meeting to decide whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency will continue into a second day.

The latest number of confirmed cases has risen above 500 with 17 deaths, all in or around Wuhan. Insurance policies are being relaxed and supplemented to ensure that cost is not a deterrent to individuals submitting to detection and treatment.

Update: A second city, Huanggang, about 70 kilometres from Wuhan and where there has been a dozen cases reported, is also to be put on lockdown.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics & Society

A Rubbish Protest In Wuhan

Yangluo Yangtze River Bridge, Xinzhou district, Wuhan. Photo credit: fading, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56142131

PUBLIC PROTESTS AGAINST construction of a waste incineration plant in Wuhan (above), capital of Hubei province, were of a larger scale and allowed to run longer than is typical before being expunged from the streets and censored from public attention last weekend. Beijing may have been focused elsewhere, but this kind of social protest will be no less concerning to authorities.

Not least because it happened in a city that embodies the change to China’s economy. Whether you are looking for the growing domestic consumption story, the move up the industrial value chain, urbanisation or, self-evidently, the environmental challenges narrative, Wuhan has a piece of it. It is also, by repute, an above average incubator if the countries business talent.

If the city is indeed the everyday face of modern China away from the razzmatazz of Beijing and Shanghai, then flagrant denial of authority is not a feature of the official description.

Wuhan has now reportedly put the project on hold, saying it will consult residents over their concerns of potential toxic pollution and a further addition to the stench already created by a waste landfill in the same district as the proposed incinerator.

Protests against pollution have been the one area of civic unrest that has flourished over the past decade, albeit to an extremely limited extent. A couple of years back a city incinerator plant project in Guangdong was scrapped but not before police had fired tear gas at protestors. This time around, the policing was less trigger happy but still harsh.

The Party remains vigilant against any prospect that an environmental movement might blossom into a political challenge to its monopoly on power. None the less two facts are inescapable. China is generating ever more rubbish, and its citizens are ready to push for more say over how it is disposed of, especially not in their own backyards.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Politics & Society

When Beijing Betters London And Shanghai LA

A McKinsey Global Institute ranking of the world's top 50 cities by GDP in 2005

By 2025, Shanghai and Beijing will have higher GDPs than Los Angeles and London, a further sign of the world’s eastwards economic shift. The prediction comes from the McKinsey Global Institute, the economic research arm of McKinsey & Co., the international consultancy firm, which has been working on mapping the changing economic power of the world’s metropolitan areas, and is recirculating some work on this it first released in March. Shanghai is already among the world’s top 50 cities ranked by GDP, but as well a Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Foshan, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Wuhan and Xian will all join it by 2025, McKinsey predicts. European cities will be most numerous among the dropouts, but another will be Taipei.

1 Comment

Filed under Economy