Coronavirus origin, conspiracies and silence

In a village on the outskirts of China’s Wuhan, an elderly woman is chanting quietly. In early February, her 44-year-old brother died from coronavirus, and she cannot forgive herself.
After the ceremony, Ms Wang says that the shaman received a message from beyond the grave. Her brother, Wang Fei, had absolved her of any blame. “Feifei doesn’t hold me responsible,” she says. “He was trying to comfort me and persuade me to accept his death.”
Her brother died in a Covid ward, unable to see visitors; his last days lived out in a series of desperate text messages. “I feel so tired,” he wrote in one of them.
Ms Wang’s guilt is a product of one of the cruellest aspects of this global pandemic – the enforced isolation of sufferers from their families.
“I couldn’t go to the hospital to take care of him,” she says. “When I heard he’d died, I just couldn’t accept it. My family’s been broken into pieces.”
She wants answers about her brother’s treatment – whether he was given proper care, and whether more could have been done to save him. But Ms Wang has been told by the police not to speak to the foreign media.
For victims, asking questions about how and why the outbreak began in Wuhan, and whether it might have been better contained, is not easy. But at the epicentre of this global disaster, the need to ask questions is a necessity, not a choice.
The day in mid-January when Wang Fei began to feel unwell, China’s official death toll stood at just three. Today, more than 11 million people have been infected worldwide, at least 500,000 have died – and the virus has forced the lockdown of entire economies.  
It is in Wuhan where the coronavirus was first discovered. And it is here, too, where the search for its origin must begin, leading to perhaps the biggest question of them all, and one now at the heart of an escalating propaganda war between Washington and Beijing.
Did the coronavirus – as most scientists think – come from nature, or might it have leaked from a lab?
In early January, medics had begun to realize that the disease was highly infectious and were implementing their own hospital quarantine procedures. But instead of alerting the public, the authorities were silencing health workers.
Li Wenliang, a doctor who tried to warn colleagues to take precautions against infection, was reprimanded and made to sign a confession by the police.
Meanwhile, with the authorities still insisting the disease was not contagious, Wang Fei began to feel unwell. He went to hospital where he was given paracetamol for his fever and sent home. “They say there’s no human-to-human transmission, but the doctors are all wearing masks,” he told his sister.
“At that time, I was telling him that it is ‘controllable and preventable,’” she says. “Only when I look back, I realize the government really didn’t give enough warning. Now I know what he really needed was proper medical help. That’s what makes me feel guilty.”
Mr Wang then spent his days joining long queues outside hospitals. But with too many patients and not enough beds, he would return home exhausted.
On 23 January, Wuhan was put into lockdown. It was the world’s first, and became one of the longest and strictest attempts to contain the spread of the virus. But it came too late to prevent an estimated five million people leaving the city in the run-up to the national holiday.
A few days later, his condition deteriorated and the family called for an ambulance. They were told there were more than 600 people ahead of them in the queue. Seven hours later he was finally admitted to hospital.
Mr Wang texted his sister, complaining about the difficulty of getting staff to attend to his basic needs – such as help with drinking water. He continued to get worse. On 7 February Dr Li Wenliang, the doctor censored by the police, died in the same hospital. Mr Wang’s spirits sank even lower. “If even a doctor can’t survive,” he told his sister by text, “what chance have I got?” 
The authorities are still silencing medics in Wuhan. In one incident, when a nurse outside a hospital tried speaking about her experience on the front lines dealing with Covid-19 patients, two plain-clothes policemen, who have been watching her talking to journalists, emerge from the side of the street, run alongside her, and bring her bike to a halt.
After speaking to her sternly, she calls the journalists and asked them to delete the interview.
The control of information, of course, has long been central to China’s system of government.
Wuhan’s lockdown was successful in eventually bringing the city’s outbreak under control, but China faces allegations, including from the US government, that delay and cover-up in the early stages made a global crisis inevitable. In the early stages of any disease outbreak, even days can make a big difference to the speed and scale of the spread.
One study has suggested that if it had acted a week earlier, the number of cases in China could have been reduced by 66%. The authorities deny the allegations and insist that, in the face of a previously unknown disease, their response was swift and point out that it has been commended by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The government is now comparing itself to administrations in the West, even overtly mocking them for what it sees as a chaotic and confused response. And it is silencing those who might challenge that narrative.
While the failings of democratic governments have been comprehensively exposed by a free press, there is no such scrutiny in China. This is a place where even trying to talk openly about your dead brother can bring you to the attention of the police.
The origin of the virus is surrounded by many theories. One initially suggested that the Huanan Seafood Market is ground zero for the outbreak, the place where the virus made the leap from animals to humans. But this theory now appears to have been dismissed by China, following the testing of samples taken from various places inside the market.
While traces of the virus were found, none were detected on any of the animal samples. Officials have concluded that the outbreak is likely to have begun elsewhere, and that the crowded market simply helped spread the disease from person to person.
Most scientists remain convinced, though, that somewhere along the line, whether in a market or elsewhere, Sars-CoV-2 will have passed naturally from an animal to a human.
They point to an increasing number of such “spillover” events driven by factors such as population growth and human encroachment on natural habitats.
Another theory suggested enveloped the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in a storm of suspicions and allegations that the virus might have leaked from a lab. The institute is the world’s leading authority in the collection, storage and study of bat coronaviruses.
Its researchers are led by star scientist Professor Shi Zhengli – known as “Bat Woman” to her colleagues because of her expertise.
It was Professor Shi who discovered and sequenced the genetic code of the nearest known relative of the Sars CoV-1 virus, found inside a bat from a cave in China’s Yunnan Province. Ever since the Sars CoV-1 outbreak, the fear of an even deadlier, more infectious spillover event has been the driving force behind Wuhan’s coronavirus research.
On 2 January, just three days after becoming aware of the new virus circulating in Wuhan, she also became the first to sequence Sars-Cov-2. Ironically, it is the genetic make-up of Sars-CoV-2 that has itself helped fuel the lab-leak theory.
Some subsequent studies suggest that there is something different about its genome compared to other known coronaviruses of a similar type. While most viruses need time to adapt to a new host, Sars-CoV-2 appears to have been highly infectious from the beginning of the outbreak.
One paper compared the new outbreak with the original Sars epidemic. It found that Sars-CoV-2 was already “pre-adapted” for human infection. It is this combination of factors – the WIV’s proximity to the outbreak, the kind of scientific work it was involved in, and the seemingly unusual nature of the virus itself – that have led to the highly controversial alternative to the natural “spillover” theory.