While scientists are still examining the exact origins of the virus, whether or not it came from bats or another animal, how it mutated to become so infectious and so deadly, and how long it was around before the initial outbreak, that Wuhan was the initial epicenter is undeniable.
As the country has moved past its initial mishandling of the virus — officials appear to have downplayed its severity and the potential for a pandemic, preventing an effective response until too late — Beijing has reveled in contrasting its own successes with the situation in other countries, particularly the United States.
But the stain of being the place where the pandemic emerged remains. In recent months, Chinese state media and officials have begun hyping up reports of potential other sources, pointing to research that may suggest — or can be manipulated to suggest — that the virus was circulating earlier than first thought and, most importantly, was circulating outside of China.
This does little to change the fact Wuhan was where the first outbreak occurred, but the chance of blaming another country for the pandemic, just as China was — largely unfairly — blamed for the emergence of the coronavirus last year, seems too good to pass up.
Chinese experts disagree however, with Wu himself saying in November that “more and more evidence is showing that frozen seafood or meat products can bring viruses from outbreak countries into China.”
While initially this theory appears to have emerged from an abundance of caution after China had essentially controlled its domestic outbreak and was concerned new infections from overseas could undermine this, it has evolved to present a potential cause of the pandemic itself — one that would, conveniently, serve to diminish Chinese government responsibility.
As well as speculating about frozen food packaging, Chinese officials and state media have also hyped studies that seem to suggest the virus was circulating outside the country last September or even earlier, even as scientists have criticized the methodology of certain papers and warned against drawing conclusions from them.
“Although it might be too early to jump to conclusions, the possibility that the coronavirus was passed on from cold-chain products into Wuhan, or more specifically, to the Huanan wet market, where the sale of frozen products was once prevalent, cannot be ruled out,” the paper claimed, adding that “more evidence is needed, and scientists worldwide are urged to join hands to further research this hypothesis and pinpoint the origin of the virus.”
One member of the team told reporters that the trip was “really not about finding a guilty country.”
“It’s about trying to understand what happened and then see if, based on those data, we can try to reduce the risk in the future,” said Fabian Leendertz of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, according to the BBC.
But China may fear that the WHO investigation — if it confirms the basic facts of the Wuhan outbreak as currently understood, including that officials failed to recognize the true danger of the virus and tried to suppress reports and gag whistleblowers — could blow back on Beijing just as the country is working to rehabilitate its image.
By muddying the water with talk of potential outside origins, regardless of the fact this does not change that Wuhan was where the first major outbreak took place, Beijing’s propagandists may hope to undercut any such criticism, or even provide a potential sop for the WHO report to avoid assigning blame.