Researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO) investigating the origins of the coronavirus in China have discovered indications that the outbreak was much more widespread in Wuhan in December 2019 than previously thought.
And they are seeking urgent access to hundreds of thousands of blood samples from the city that China has not allowed them to examine until now.
The principal investigator of the WHO mission, Peter Ben Embarek, told Citizen Free Press in an extensive interview that the mission had found several indications of the broader spread of 2019, including establishing for the first time that there were more than a dozen of variants of the virus in Wuhan as early as December.
The team also had the opportunity to speak with the first patient that Chinese authorities said had been infected, an office worker in his 40s, with no travel history, whose infection was reported on Dec. 8.
The slow emergence of more detailed data collected during the WHO’s long-awaited trip to China could add to concerns expressed by other scientists studying the origins of the disease that it may have spread in China long before its first official appearance in China. mid december.
Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told Citizen Free Press: “The virus was widely circulating in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”
The WHO food safety specialist added that Chinese scientists had presented the team with 174 coronavirus cases in and around Wuhan in December 2019. Of these, 100 had been confirmed by laboratory tests, he said, and another 74 through the clinical diagnosis of the patient’s symptoms.
Embarek said it was possible that this larger number – of likely serious cases that had been noticed by Chinese doctors early on – meant that the disease could have affected as many as 1,000 people in Wuhan in December.
“We haven’t made any models of that since,” he said. “But we know … in large numbers … of the infected population, about 15% end up with severe cases and the vast majority are mild cases.”
Embarek said the mission, which included 17 WHO and 17 Chinese scientists, had expanded the type of virus genetic material they examined from the first coronavirus cases that December. This allowed them to look at partial genetic samples, rather than just complete ones, he said.
As a result, they were able to collect 13 different genetic sequences from the SARS-COV-2 virus for the first time as of December 2019. The sequences, if examined with broader data from patients in China during 2019, could provide valuable clues about geography. and the time of the outbreak before December.
Embarek said: “Some of them are from the markets… Some of them are not linked to the markets,” including the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which is believed to have played a role in the first spread of the virus. “This is something that we found as part of our mission… part of the interaction we all had together.”
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