Published: 10:57, March 13, 2020 | Updated: 06:31, June 6, 2023
Questions remain over where virus came from
By Alfred Romann

The number of COVID-19 cases in China, both inside and outside Hubei province, continues to drop, suggesting the country's approach to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak is working.

All countries have to step up to fight the virus and limit its spread, but they have to do this with limited information about the virus. Even as the number of cases in China drops, the outbreak is growing more serious elsewhere.

One of China's most recognized authorities in the field, Zhong Nanshan, has said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about this coronavirus and that it is difficult to speak with 100 percent certainty about its origin.

Zhong said COVID-19 is not a China disease but "a disease of mankind instead of one country".

There are a couple of important points here. One is that outbreaks can happen anywhere. Another is that, in today's interconnected world, it is impossible to contain diseases within the borders of any one country.

This is not a China virus. It is a global one.

Middle East respiratory syndrome, as the name suggests, started somewhere in the Middle East, and many countries around the world had to deal with it. The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, which started in 2003, quickly reached global proportions.

The H1N1 outbreak in 2009 started in Mexico and spread widely in the United States before making its way around the world, killing perhaps half a million people.

Neither did the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people around the world, start in Spain-although more than a century later there is still much debate about where it did start.

The concentration of cases does not determine origin.

Viruses do not have nationalities. The world is far too interconnected. A person could carry a virus from one country to another without knowing it.

In Wuhan, the first hints that a novel coronavirus was moving among locals were three samples collected from a patient with an unknown pneumonia at a local hospital, but that does not necessarily mean the virus started there.

It is possible some people had already suffered from COVID-19 before the cases in Wuhan were confirmed, and that people outside China were already carrying the virus, perhaps without knowing it. For example, Wuhan hosted the 7th CISM Military World Games with more than 9,000 military athletes from 109 countries in late October.

One study suggests the new coronavirus may be linked to a virus strain linked to cases identified both in China and the United States, with at least one case of community transmission already being identified in a patient with no obvious links to China or Wuhan. There have also been cases in Italy with no known China link.

The study suggests the original virus existed in bats and somehow made its way from bats to humans, but suggests it is unclear how or where this jump occurred.

The World Health Organization agrees there had to be at least one intermediate step, meaning the virus likely jumped from bats to another animal (perhaps a household pet) and then to humans.

It may be useful to know where the virus came from in order to develop a vaccine or treatment, but knowing where the virus came from is less important than preventing it from spreading.

A month ago, shutting down entire cities might have seemed like something of an overreach, but it is hard to argue with the results. With few cases reported outside Hubei province now and the numbers dropping daily, Zhong believes the outbreak in China will be under control by April.

Meanwhile, when a vaccine becomes widely available and more effective treatments are developed, the question of the origin of the virus will become academic.

Sure, novel coronavirus pneumonia was first identified in Wuhan, and that is also where the disease is likely to be brought under control first. In the process, China may learn a few things-and so may the rest of the world-about how to deal with this and future outbreaks.

The author is managing director of Bahati Ltd, an editorial services consultancy based in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.