China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins

MOJIANG, China (AP) — Deep within the lush mountain valleys of southern China lies the doorway to a mine shaft that when harbored bats with the closest identified relative of the COVID-19 virus.

The world is of intense scientific curiosity as a result of it could maintain clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed greater than 1.7 million individuals worldwide. But for scientists and journalists, it has change into a black gap of no data due to political sensitivity and secrecy.

A bat analysis crew visiting lately managed to take samples however had them confiscated, two individuals acquainted with the matter stated. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered to not converse to the press. And a crew of Related Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in a number of automobiles who blocked entry to roads and websites in late November.

Greater than a yr for the reason that first identified particular person was contaminated with the coronavirus, an AP investigation reveals the Chinese language authorities is strictly controlling all analysis into its origins, clamping down on some whereas actively selling fringe theories that it may have come from exterior China.

The federal government is handing out lots of of 1000’s of {dollars} in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the army, the AP has discovered. However it’s monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any information or analysis should be permitted by a brand new activity power managed by China’s cupboard, beneath direct orders from President Xi Jinping, in response to inside paperwork obtained by The AP. A uncommon leak from throughout the authorities, the handfuls of pages of unpublished paperwork affirm what many have lengthy suspected: The clampdown comes from the highest.

Because of this, little or no has been made public. Authorities are severely limiting data and impeding cooperation with worldwide scientists.

“What did they discover?” requested Gregory Grey, a Duke College epidemiologist who oversees a lab in China learning the transmission of infectious ailments from animals to individuals. “Perhaps their information weren’t conclusive, or perhaps they suppressed the information for some political cause. I don’t know…I want I did.”

The AP investigation was based mostly on dozens of interviews with Chinese language and overseas scientists and officers, together with public notices, leaked emails, inside information and the paperwork from China’s cupboard and the Chinese language Heart for Illness Management and Prevention. It reveals a sample of presidency secrecy and top-down management that has been evident all through the pandemic.

Because the AP beforehand documented, this tradition has delayed warnings concerning the pandemic, blocked the sharing of data with the World Well being Group and hampered early testing. Scientists acquainted with China’s public well being system say the identical practices apply to delicate analysis.

“They solely choose individuals they’ll belief, people who they’ll management,” stated a public well being professional who works frequently with the China CDC, declining to be recognized out of concern of retribution. “Army groups and others are working exhausting on this, however whether or not it will get printed all relies on the end result.”

The pandemic has crippled Beijing’s repute on the worldwide stage, and China’s leaders are cautious of any findings that might recommend they had been negligent in its unfold. The Chinese language Ministry of Science and Expertise and the Nationwide Well being Fee, that are managing analysis into the coronavirus’ origins, didn’t reply to requests for remark.

“The novel coronavirus has been found in lots of components of the world,” China’s overseas ministry stated in a fax. “Scientists ought to perform worldwide scientific analysis and cooperation on a world scale.”

Some Chinese language scientists say little has been shared just because nothing of significance has been found.

“We’ve been trying, however we haven’t discovered it,” stated Zhang Yongzhen, a famend Chinese language virologist.

China’s leaders are removed from alone in politicizing analysis into the origins of the virus. In April, President Donald Trump shelved a U.S.-funded challenge to establish harmful animal ailments in China and Southeast Asia, successfully severing ties between Chinese language and American scientists and complicating the seek for virus origins. Trump additionally has accused China of setting off the pandemic by means of an accident at a Wuhan lab — a idea that some specialists say can’t be dominated out however as but has no proof behind it.

Analysis into COVID-19’s origins is essential to the prevention of future pandemics. Though a World Well being Group worldwide crew plans to go to China in early January to analyze what began the pandemic, its members and agenda needed to be permitted by China.

Some public well being specialists warn that China’s refusal to grant additional entry to worldwide scientists has jeopardized the worldwide collaboration that pinpointed the supply of the SARS outbreak practically twenty years in the past. Jonna Mazet, a founding govt director of the UC Davis One Well being Institute, stated the shortage of collaboration between Chinese language and U.S. scientists was “a disappointment” and the shortcoming of American scientists to work in China “devastating.”

“There’s a lot hypothesis across the origins of this virus,” Mazet stated. “We have to step again…and let scientists get the actual reply with out the finger-pointing.”


The hidden hunt for the origins of COVID-19 reveals how the Chinese language authorities has tried to steer the narrative.

The search began within the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan, a sprawling, low-slung complicated the place most of the first human coronavirus instances had been detected. Scientists initially suspected the virus got here from wild animals bought out there, corresponding to civet cats implicated within the unfold of SARS.

In mid-December final yr, Huanan vendor Jiang Dafa began noticing individuals had been falling ailing. Among the many first was a part-time employee in his 60s who helped clear carcasses at a stall; quickly, a pal he performed chess with additionally fell ailing. A 3rd, a seafood monger in his 40s, was contaminated and later died.

Sufferers started trickling into close by hospitals, triggering alarms by late December that alerted the China CDC. CDC chief Gao Fu instantly despatched a crew to analyze.

At first, analysis gave the impression to be transferring swiftly.

In a single day on Jan. 1, the market instantly was ordered shut, barring distributors from fetching their belongings, Jiang stated. China CDC researchers collected 585 environmental samples from door handles, sewage and the ground of the market, and authorities sprayed the complicated down with sanitizer. Later, they might cart out the whole lot inside and incinerate it.

Inner China CDC information obtained by the AP reveals that by Jan. 10 and 11, researchers had been sequencing dozens of environmental samples from Wuhan. Gary Kobinger, a Canadian microbiologist advising WHO, emailed his colleagues to share his issues that the virus originated on the market.

“This corona(virus) may be very near SARS,” he wrote on Jan. 13. “If we put apart an accident…then I’d have a look at the bats in these markets (bought and ‘wild’).”

By late January, Chinese language state media introduced that 33 of the environmental samples had examined optimistic. In a report back to WHO, officers stated 11 specimens had been greater than 99% just like the brand new coronavirus. Additionally they instructed the U.N. well being company that rats and mice had been widespread out there, and that many of the optimistic samples had been clustered in an space the place distributors traded in wildlife.

Within the meantime, Jiang prevented telling individuals he labored at Huanan due to the stigma. He criticized the political tussle between China and the U.S.

“It’s pointless responsible anybody for this illness,” Jiang stated.

Because the virus continued spreading quickly into February, Chinese language scientists printed a burst of analysis papers on COVID-19. Then a paper by two Chinese language scientists proposed with out concrete proof that the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory close to the market. It was later taken down, however it raised the necessity for picture management.

Inner paperwork present that the state quickly started requiring all coronavirus research in China to be permitted by high-level authorities officers — a coverage that critics say paralyzed analysis efforts.

A discover from a China CDC lab on February 24 put in new approval processes for publication beneath “necessary directions” from Chinese language President Xi Jinping. Different notices ordered CDC employees to not share any information, specimens or different data associated to the coronavirus with exterior establishments or people.

Then on March 2, Xi emphasised “coordination” on coronavirus analysis, state media reported.

The subsequent day, China’s cupboard, the State Council, centralized all COVID-19 publication beneath a particular activity power. The discover, obtained by the AP and marked “to not be made public,” was much more sweeping in scope than the sooner CDC notices, making use of to all universities, corporations and medical and analysis establishments.

The order stated communication and publication of analysis needed to be orchestrated like “a recreation of chess” beneath directions from Xi, and propaganda and public opinion groups had been to “information publication.” It went on to warn that those that publish with out permission, “inflicting critical opposed social influence, shall be held accountable.”

“The rules are very strict, they usually don’t make any sense,” stated a former China CDC deputy director, who declined to be named as a result of they had been instructed to not converse to the media. “I feel it’s political, as a result of individuals abroad may discover issues being stated there which may contradict what China says, so it’s all being managed.”

After the key orders, the tide of analysis papers slowed to a trickle. Though China CDC researcher Liu Jun returned to the market practically 20 occasions to gather some 2,000 samples over the next months, nothing was launched about what they revealed.

On Might 25, CDC chief Gao lastly broke the silence across the market in an interview with China’s Phoenix TV. He stated that, in contrast to the environmental samples, no animal samples from the market had examined optimistic.

The announcement stunned scientists who didn’t even know Chinese language officers had taken samples from animals. It additionally dominated out the market because the doubtless supply of the virus, together with additional analysis that confirmed most of the first instances had no ties to it.


With the market proving a lifeless finish, scientists turned extra consideration to looking for the virus at its doubtless supply: Bats.

Almost a thousand miles away from the moist market in Wuhan, bats inhabit the maze of underground limestone caves in Yunnan province. With its wealthy, loamy soil, fog banks and dense plant progress, this space in southern China bordering Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar is likely one of the most biologically numerous on earth.

At one Yunnan cave visited by the AP, with thick roots hanging over the doorway, bats fluttered out at nightfall and flew over the roofs of a close-by small village. White droppings splattered the bottom close to an altar within the rear of the cave, and Buddhist prayer strings of pink and yellow twine hung from the stalactites. Villagers stated the cave had been used as a sacred place presided over by a Buddhist monk from Thailand.

Contact like this between bats and folks praying, searching or mining in caves alarms scientists. The coronavirus’ genetic code is strikingly just like that of bat coronaviruses, and most scientists suspect COVID-19 jumped into people both immediately from a bat or by way of an middleman animal.

Since bats harboring coronaviruses are present in China and all through Southeast Asia, the wild animal host of COVID-19 might be wherever within the area, stated Linfa Wang at Duke-NUS Medical Faculty in Singapore.

“There’s a bat someplace with a 99.9% related virus to the coronavirus,” Wang stated. “Bats don’t respect these borders.

COVID-19 analysis is continuing in nations corresponding to Thailand, the place Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, a coronavirus professional, is main groups of scientists deep into the countryside to gather samples from bats. Throughout one expedition in August, Supaporn instructed the AP the virus might be discovered “wherever” there have been bats.

Chinese language scientists rapidly began testing potential animal hosts. Information present that Xia Xueshan, an infectious ailments professional, acquired a 1.four million RMB ($214,000) grant to display screen animals in Yunnan for COVID-19. State media reported in February that his crew collected lots of of samples from bats, snakes, bamboo rats and different animals, and ran an image of masked scientists in white lab coats huddled round a big, caged porcupine.


Then the federal government restrictions kicked in. Information on the samples nonetheless has not been made public, and Xia didn’t reply to requests for an interview. Though Xia has co-authored greater than a dozen papers this yr, an AP overview reveals, solelytwo had been on COVID-19, and neither targeted on its origins.

Right now, the caves that scientists as soon as surveyed are beneath shut watch by the authorities. Safety brokers tailed the AP crew in three places throughout Yunnan, and stopped journalists from visiting the cave the place researchers in 2017 recognized the species of bats chargeable for SARS. At an entrance to a second location, an enormous cave teeming with vacationers taking selfies, authorities shut the gate on the AP.

“We simply acquired a name from the county,” stated a park official, earlier than an armed policeman confirmed up.

Significantly delicate is the mine shaft the place the closest relative of the COVID-19 virus — known as “RaTG13” — was discovered.

RaTG13 was found after an outbreak in 2012, when six males cleansing the bat-filled shaft fell ailing with mysterious bouts of pneumonia, killing three. The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the China CDC each studied bat coronaviruses from this shaft. And though most scientists imagine the COVID-19 virus had its origins in nature, some say it or an in depth relative may have been transported to Wuhan and leaked by mistake.

Wuhan Institute of Virology bat professional Shi Zhengli has repeatedly denied this idea, however Chinese language authorities haven’t but allowed overseas scientists in to analyze.

Some state-backed scientists say analysis is continuing as common. Famed virologist Zhang, who acquired a 1.5 million RMB ($230,000) grant to seek for the virus’ origins, stated partnering scientists are sending him samples from throughout, together with from bats in Guizhou in southern China and rats in Henan lots of of miles north.

“Bats, mice, are there any new coronaviruses in them? Have they got this specific coronavirus?” Zhang stated. “We’ve been doing this work for over a decade. It’s not like we simply began at this time.”

Zhang declined to verify or touch upon experiences that his lab was briefly closed after publishing the virus’ genetic sequence forward of authorities. He stated he hasn’t heard of any particular restrictions on publishing papers, and the one overview his papers undergo is a routine scientific one by his establishment.

However scientists with out state backing complain that getting approval to pattern animals in southern China is now extraordinarily troublesome, and that little is understood concerning the findings of government-sponsored groups.


At the same time as they managed analysis inside China, Chinese language authorities promoted theories that instructed the virus got here from elsewhere.

The federal government gave Bi Yuhai, the Chinese language Academy of Sciences scientist tapped to spearhead origins analysis, a 1.5 million RMB grant ($230,000), information present. A paper co-authored by Bi instructed an outbreak in a Beijing market in June may have been brought on by packages of contaminated frozen fish from Europe.

China’s government-controlled media used the idea to recommend the unique outbreak in Wuhan may have began with seafood imported from overseas — a notion worldwide scientists reject. WHO has stated it is rather unlikely that folks may be contaminated with COVID-19 by way of packaged meals, and that it’s “extremely speculative” to recommend COVID-19 didn’t begin in China. Bi didn’t reply to requests for an interview, and China has not offered sufficient virus samples for a definitive evaluation.

The Chinese language state press additionally has broadly lined preliminary research from Europe suggesting COVID-19 was present in wastewater samples in Italy and Spain final yr. However scientists have largely dismissed these research, and the researchers themselves acknowledged they didn’t discover sufficient virus fragments to find out conclusively if it was the coronavirus.

And in the previous couple of weeks, Chinese language state media has taken out of context analysis from a German scientist, decoding it to recommend that the pandemic started in Italy. The scientist, Alexander Kekule, director of the Institute for Biosecurity Analysis, has stated repeatedly that he believes the virus first emerged in China.

Inner paperwork present the Chinese language authorities additionally has sponsored research on the doable position of the Southeast Asian pangolin, a scaly anteater as soon as prized in conventional Chinese language medication, as an middleman animal host. Inside the span of three days in February, Chinese language scientists put out 4separatepaperson coronaviruses associated to COVID-19 in trafficked Malayan pangolins from Southeast Asia seized by customs officers in Guangdong.

However many specialists now say the idea is unlikely. Wang of the Duke-NUS Medical Faculty in Singapore stated the seek for the coronavirus in pangolins didn’t look like “scientifically pushed.” He stated blood samples can be probably the most conclusive proof of COVID-19’s presence within the uncommon mammals, and to this point, no incriminating matches have been discovered.

WHO has stated greater than 500 species of different animals, together with cats, ferrets and hamsters, are being studied as doable middleman hosts for COVID-19.

The Chinese language authorities can be limiting and controlling the seek for affected person zero by means of the re-testing of outdated flu samples.

Chinese language hospitals accumulate 1000’s of samples from sufferers with flu-like signs each week and retailer them in freezers. They may simply be examined once more for COVID-19, though politics may then decide whether or not the outcomes are made public, stated Ray Yip, the founding director of the U.S. CDC workplace in China.

“They’d be loopy to not do it,” Yip stated. “The political management will look forward to that data to see, does this data make China look silly or not?…If it makes China look silly, they received’t.”

Within the U.S., CDC officers way back examined roughly 11,000 early samples collected beneath the flu surveillance program since Jan. 1. And in Italy, researchers lately discovered a boy who had fallen ailing in November 2019 and later examined optimistic for the coronavirus.

However in China, scientists have solely printed retrospective testing information from two Wuhan flu surveillance hospitals — out of at the very least 18 in Hubei province alone and properly over 500 throughout the nation. The info consists of simply 520 samples out of the 330,000 collected in China final yr.

These huge gaps within the analysis aren’t due simply to a scarcity of testing but in addition to a scarcity of transparency. Inner information obtained by the AP reveals that by Feb. 6, the Hubei CDC had examined over 100 samples in Huanggang, a metropolis southeast of Wuhan. However the outcomes haven’t been made public.

The little data that has dribbled out suggests the virus was circulating properly exterior Wuhan in 2019 — a discovering that might elevate awkward questions for Chinese language officers about their early dealing with of the outbreak. Chinese language researchers discovered that a baby lots of of miles from Wuhan had fallen ailing with the virus by Jan. 2, suggesting it was spreading broadly in December. However earlier samples weren’t examined, in response to a scientist with direct data of the research.

“There was a really deliberate selection of the time interval to check, as a result of going too early may have been too delicate,” stated the scientist, who declined to be named out of concern of retribution.

A WHO report written in July however printed in November stated Chinese language authorities had recognized 124 instances in December 2019, together with 5 instances exterior Wuhan. Amongst WHO’s goals for its upcoming go to to China are critiques of hospital information earlier than December.

Coronavirus professional Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO crew, stated figuring out the pandemic’s supply shouldn’t be used to assign guilt.

“We’re all a part of this collectively,” he stated. “And till we understand that, we’re by no means going to do away with this drawback.”


Kang reported from Beijing and Cheng reported from London. Related Press journalists Han Guan Ng and Emily Wang in Wuhan, China, Haven Daley in Stinson Seashore, California, and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, contributed to this report.

Observe Dake Kang, Sam McNeil and Maria Cheng on Twitter at @dakekang, @stmcneil and @mylcheng.

Contact AP’s world investigative crew at [email protected]


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