Global Times probes why WHO-China report included hypotheses of cold chain and world military games


The 7th Military World Games opened on Oct 18, 2019 in Wuhan, capital city of central China's Hubei Province. The quadrennial military gala was held in China for the first time. cnsphoto

BEIJING (Global Times): The joint WHO-China report released at the end of March did not provide a definitive answer to the origins of the coronavirus, but the report mentioned some of the hypotheses that need more investigation.

They include mention of cold chain transmission and mass gatherings, specifically the 2019 World Military Games which was held in Wuhan in October 2019, about two months before the Covid-19 outbreak in the city.

Global Times reporters conducted a series of investigations in Wuhan to find out why these hypotheses were mentioned and how big these possibilities were.

Many unanswered doubts need further global investigations, such as tracing the imported food supply chain during the military games.

Prominent scientists from the joint WHO-China study and Chinese health authority believe that tracking down these hypotheses was a process for the world to know possible early circulation of the disease and get closer to possible Covid-19 patient zero.

Some hypotheses of the coronavirus origins written in the joint WHO-China report came as a surprise to many, as they were not solidly supported by hard evidence, at least not yet, such as the cold chain transmission and mass gathering of the 2019 World Military Games.

But scientists from the WHO-China virus tracing team believe studying these hypotheses help know the early cases and get closer to coronavirus patient zero.

In the WHO report, transmission through cold chain products is considered a possible pathway, and mass gathering such as the military games may facilitate the transmission of respiratory viruses, but further joint review of the data on respiratory illness from the on-site clinics at the games is needed, the WHO report said.

It might be too early to jump to conclusions, however, the possibility that coronavirus was already circulated in the months before December at specific mass gatherings, particularly the 2019 World Military Games, held from Oct 18 to 27,2019 in Wuhan, cannot be ruled out.

But where did the possibility come from? How big was the possibility? Are there any other possibilities that need further investigations?

The Global Times reporters visited Wuhan, talking to merchants in the Huanan seafood market, where the earliest cluster infections in China were reported, hotels accommodating international military athletes in 2019, the catering service provider for the World Military Games and prominent scientists from the WHO-China joint study group.

The Global Times reporters also talked to dozens of Wuhan residents who are angry about the stigma the city has suffered, believing that the city was a victim, not the "culprit" of the epidemic and the virus was actually imported from foreign countries.

Scientists said there was no direct evidence linking the coronavirus origins with the 2019 World Military Games at this moment, but many unsolved doubts raised in these speculations needs further global investigations, such as tracing the imported food supply chain during the games.

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO team to Wuhan in January, told the Global Times that as part of the anti-doping sports programme, there were blood samples from the military games that are still available and could be tested to find out possible earlier patients.

A Chinese scientist from the WHO-China virus tracing team who requested anonymity told the Global Times that scientists had to consider all possibilities.

These include international mass gatherings, and the military games hypothesis in the WHO report, because events like it are worth retracing to get more clues for the start and early circulation of the disease, and further investigations on these events may help scientists find earlier cases and get closer to the patient zero of Covid-19.

One year after Wuhan reopened, the hustle and bustle of the city returned. But one place remained closed. The Huanan wet market, where the first cluster of Covid-19 cases in the country were reported, was still cordoned off with blue fences on April 9.

Many people who were apparently familiar with the market seldom glanced at it when they passed by the blue fences. Only several former merchants at the street corner quietly discussed the future of the market and their business.

Speculations about the market going to be torn down have been circulating among many former merchants, and some said they wished the market could reopen to clear the name of it, even though their business might need to be under strict supervision.

Now, about 60 per cent of the former merchants selling meat, vegetables and seafood have moved their business to a market 16km away.

A former merchant surnamed Ming who used to sell vegetables in Huanan market, told the Global Times that he and many merchants saw foreign military personnel visiting the market during the military games.

"It was around 9 or 10am, I saw about five foreigners in summer military uniform walking into the market from the parking lot," Ming recalled.

Another merchant surnamed Li who used to sell shrimps in Huanan wet market also told the reporters she and many other merchants witnessed the visit of some foreign military personnel during 2019 World Military Games.

"I did see them, and I saw several batches of foreign military personnel visit our market more than once," Li told the Global Times.

She said that she saw those foreign military personnel talk to several merchants, but she did not see any of them buying stuff in the market. Both Li and Ming said that they did not see any of those foreigners show symptoms of cough or running noses.

The Global Times reporters also visited several hotels around the market and found that two hotels both within 3km range from the Huanan seafood market accommodated foreign delegation during the games.

A receptionist of the Shangri-La Hotel in Wuhan said that they hosted European athletes during the games.

Sheraton Wuhan Hankou Hotel, which is about 2.5km from the Huanan wet market, also received foreign participants of the military games including the Qatari military delegation and some of the US military delegation members, according to a receptionist of the hotel.

Another Chinese scientist with the joint WHO-China study experts' group who requested anonymity told the Global Times that whether foreign participants in the games visited the Huanan market was not verified, and if it was true, it could not be served as evidence for the claim that foreign delegates of the military games brought the virus to the market.

But the possibility was there and we need more evidence, the scientist said.

Reports about French and German athletes developing coughs and fever after returning from the military games began to circulate in May 2020, although it's not clear how they developed the symptoms and whether they got infected in Wuhan or in their own countries, there seemed to be no clear conclusion of these reports.

Although the French defenc ministry later denied its athletes had any symptoms of suspected Covid-19, French media questioned that most medical staff of the French delegation to the games were physical therapists who probably did not know the pathological characteristics of novel coronavirus or had any experience in dealing with infectious diseases.

According to a report of French news channel BFMTV in May 2020, a number of French athletes returned from Wuhan with fever and body aches. But none of the returning athletes were tested. - Global Times

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