China’s government stood silent Monday in the face of growing scientific reports that the source of the deadly Wuhan virus outbreak did not originate solely from a seafood market in the city.
President Xi Jinping faced mounting criticism on Chinese social media sites for failing to travel to the affected city in Hubei province. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang instead arrived in Wuhan on Monday and is heading efforts to confront the epidemic.
Suspicions about a link to a biological warfare leak in Wuhan have been raised because the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory handles deadly viruses and its civilian and military research are intertwined in China.
The Washington Times reported Friday that a former Israeli military intelligence analyst on the Chinese biological arms program said it is possible the disease escaped from one of two Chinese research facilities that are linked to China’s covert biological weapons program.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology National Biosafety Laboratory is China’s sole declared facility capable of conducting research on deadly viruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). China declared a second laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, as part of biological warfare research under the Biological Weapons Convention.
The State Department said in a report last year that it suspects China is working covertly on offensive biological weapons in violation of the convention.
A group of 29 Chinese researchers, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, said the first person to become ill from the Wuhan virus was identified on Dec. 1 and had no link to the animal market. The magazine Science reported the findings of the study on Sunday.
“No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases,” the report said. At least 13 victims of the virus had no apparent exposure to the seafood market. The market sold wild animals such as civet cats until it was closed on Jan. 1.
“That’s a big number, 13, with no link,” Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University, told Science.
Dr. Lucey, an infectious disease physician and adjunct professor of infectious diseases, told the online newsletter Science Speaks that China has offered no explanation for why some of the illnesses were not linked to the market.
“Infection must have occurred in November 2019 for the earliest reported patient with onset of symptoms Dec. 1,” he said.
“Whether this patient was infected from an animal or another person in November, directly or by [objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils and furniture], his infection occurred at a location other than the Huanan seafood market.”
At least 80 people have died in China, most in the central province of Hubei, and more than 2,700 are infected. The death toll and infection rate could be higher because China’s government is known to censor news reports and official information. The U.S. and 12 other countries have reported cases within their borders.
Five British medical researchers stated in a report that if the spread of the disease is not controlled, “we expect further outbreaks to occur in other Chinese cities, and that infections will continue to be exported to international destinations at an increasing rate.”
By Feb. 4, “our model predicts the number of infected people in Wuhan to be greater than 250,000,” they said. The researchers were identified as Jonathan M. Read, Jessica R.E. Bridgen and Chris P. Jewell of the Center for Health Informatics at Lancaster University; Derek A.T. Cummings of the Department of Biology and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida; and Antonia Ho of the University of Glasgow Center for Virus Research.
“We predict the cities with the largest outbreaks elsewhere in China to be Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu,” they stated.
Chinese social media posts on the microblogging platform Weibo have questioned why Mr. Xi did not visit Wuhan. Many of the social media posts criticizing the Chinese leader were couched in coded language that did not mention the president directly.
Other social media posts criticized Wuhan officials’ efforts to contain the epidemic.
The lack of information from China about the disease is triggering widespread fears of a potential global disaster similar to the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people.
The virus outbreak, scientists say, is now believed to have begun in November or early December — weeks earlier than initial Chinese health officials’ claims about the first reported case in mid-December.
A senior State Department official told reporters last week that Chinese secrecy surrounding the new virus is similar to the mishandling of the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a similar coronavirus.
“I do believe that the concern you see both inside China and internationally is a reflection of what we’ve seen in the past — 2003 with SARS, and a number of other issues — where the government has been slow to respond out of fear of embarrassment, or making things look worse than they are, and that reluctance to respond in a rapid manner again doesn’t give the global community a secure feeling for this being managed inside China,” the official said.
Tracking the virus
Georgetown’s Dr. Lucey made no reference to a biological warfare laboratory as a possible source of the virus, but his hypothesis is that the first appearance of the Wuhan virus did not come from the seafood market and that it was spreading from person to person in October or November.
“Thus, the presumed rapid spread of the virus apparently for the first time from the Huanan seafood market in December did not occur,” Dr. Lucey said. “Instead the virus was already silently spreading in Wuhan hidden amidst many other patients with pneumonia at this time of year.”
He suggested that the virus may have spread from infected animals in other markets inside or outside Wuhan or along a supply chain of infected animals.
One of the Chinese authors of the study published in The Lancet, Bin Cao, told the newsletter ScienceInsider that he welcomed criticism by Dr. Lucey.
“Now it seems clear that seafood market is not the only origin of the virus,” he said. “But to be honest, we still do not know where the virus came from now.”
China’s government has said little on the Wuhan virus.
“After the pneumonia outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China has notified the [World Health Organization] and relevant countries about the epidemic in a timely manner and has stayed in close contact with them,” she said.
Chinese state-controlled media have also provided only limited coverage of the disease and its impact.
An editorial in the Communist Party-affiliate Global Times stated that “rationality and unity” are needed to battle the virus.
“What we should do now is not panic, but act resolutely and mobilize the sense of responsibility of everyone in society and truly achieve unity in the face of this epidemic,” the editorial said.