Coronavirus footprints: how it arrived in Canada and went around the world

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The creature that distinguishes the elderly and the infirm from the sick and kills people with COVID-19 is a species of the genus betacoronavirus, an ancient thing descended from a distant ancestor that emerged about 10,000 years ago in the kingdom of Riboviria, in order Nidovirales.

It comes from the Coronaviridae family and the Orthocoronavirinae subfamily, and it is important to understand something of the science involved in its taxonomy to fully appreciate the reasons why most of the world’s advanced economies have found themselves in a state of suspended animation, and why about half of the world population, or 3.9 billion of us, in April, was still following instructions to hide more or less from the beast and wait for some kind of clear signal.

Since January 5, when a “wet market” in the metropolis of Wuhan, in central China, was involved in the first bulletin of the World Health Organization reporting “pneumonia of unknown etiology In this city, it’s always the same. In all of the WHO guidelines and in every statement from the People’s Republic of China, in all the strange White House prescriptions of Donald Trump and in each of the serious justifications issued by the government of Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, we are always urged to consider “science.” “

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But science tells its own story. It tracks the creature’s genetic fingerprints across the earth, as well as its arrival and distribution in Canada, without the aid of a teleprompter or speaking notes. History does not offer any heroic role to the Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, and it is of no particular use for the justifications of the Trudeau government for having waited until March 18 before closing the sections of the international arrivals at most Canadian airports. Nor does it offer any particular comfort to those among the Ottawa critics who wanted all direct flights from China to be closed weeks before.

An important first chapter in the story told by science revolves around molecular clock analyzes that shed light on how several species of the genus betacoronavirus have thrived in the bloodstream of various bat children for approximately 5,100 years. But the main chapter opens when the beta-coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 revealed itself to Chinese geneticists on January 7, 2020, confirming what a group of particularly courageous whistleblowers in Wuhan had been warning about for weeks. So let’s start there.

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Doctors who tried to alert their peers to the presence of a deadly coronavirus appearing in hospital patients were disciplined and ordered to say nothing. A week before January 7, New Year’s Day, eight doctors were punished for “rumor”. Among them, Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old doctor from Wuhan Central Hospital, whose death a month later from complications from COVID-19, made him a popular hero in China.

For weeks, Beijing and the WHO insisted that there was no clear evidence that the coronavirus was easily capable of “human-to-human” transmission, even though primary care physicians warned that it had spread by human contagion from the start. From the earliest days of the epidemic, the severity of the crisis in Wuhan was not communicated to the outside world by WHO. The situation was known to the world only thanks to information that made its way into China’s vast and complex surveillance and censorship apparatus.

Either because of the recumbent leadership of the WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, or more charitably, because the United Nations agency he heads is constitutionally incapable of behaving otherwise, WHO has helped and encouraged the Chinese government in its disinformation, its denial and dismissal of the gravity of the catastrophe which takes place in Wuhan. So we have to eliminate that.

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Here is the WHO, almost word for word repeating the party line in Beijing on January 14: “Preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus. But here is an internal memo from the Chinese National Health Commission leaked to the Associated Press, quoting commission chief Ma Xiaowei, from the same day, Jan. 14: “The epidemic is still serious and complex, the challenge the most serious since SARS in 2003, and is likely to become a major public health event. “

During the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome pandemic, Chinese health officials did not take the trouble to inform WHO of the initial epidemic for nearly three months. He continued to strike down over 8,000 people worldwide, killing 774 of them. In Canada, Toronto was particularly affected, with 251 cases and 44 deaths. A WHO travel advisory in April 2003 inviting people to stay away from Toronto lasted only a week, but further investigation determined that its continuing impact on tourism and travel had removed $ 950 million. economy dollars.

Because of this story, there was heightened sensitivity to WHO in Geneva, and around the Chinese Communist Party’s political office in Beijing, about a new SARS-like pandemic in China. However, it wasn’t until January 20 – about a month after Wuhan hospital staff first warned that human-to-human transmission of an SARS-like virus was happening – that Beijing changed its story and admitted to the world that it was true. .

During those critical first weeks, the laboratories in Wuhan and Shanghai that had sequenced the virus and discovered its close relationship to SARS-CoV-1 (SARS 2003) were ordered to hand in or take their samples destroy and shut up. The Shanghai laboratory, where researchers released the world’s first deadly thing that causes COVID-19 genome sequence, was closed the next day.

But by officially isolating SARS-CoV-2 as the pathogen involved in this pneumonia of unknown cause that was causing the disease in Wuhan, the whistleblowers have been confirmed. The story told by science confirmed their own observations and their own stories. It was true: the thing that made people fall so seriously ill, and that looked so much like the SARS virus that first appeared in Guangdong in southern China in November 2002, turned out to be a cousin so close to SARS. -CoV-1 that it shares about 80% of its genetic structure.

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In 2004, Chinese scientists concluded that the SARS-CoV-1 virus originated from horseshoe bats that roost in a cave in Yunnan Province and had mutated and infected people via intermediate transmission via a small fierce forest mammal called civet, which is a bit like a cross between a mongoose and a cat. Civets have long been pillars of many “wet” Chinese markets.

So where does SARS-CoV-2 come from?

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On New Years Eve, just a week before the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the WHO China office was informed by local health officials that 41 patients were suffering from a mysterious illness in the capital, Wuhan. from Hubei Province, and that they were closely watched, and what connected them the most was that they were known to have frequented a live animal and seafood market in Jianghan District of the city.

Huanan’s seafood market was closed and subjected to thorough disinfection and environmental clean-up on New Year’s Day. This did not serve to preserve the evidence. In any event, more than a dozen of the 41 original patients were not at all close to the market and had not been in contact with anyone who had been. The first person known to have fallen ill with the new coronavirus, identified only as Patient Chen, has reported no link to the market. He was diagnosed on December 8. He recovered.

There has been evidence from US intelligence agencies, and some reasonable speculation among scientists studying the viruses, that SARS-CoV-2 could have inadvertently escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center for world famous not far from the Jianghan district wet market. There has also been profoundly unnecessary speculation that the virus is a kind of genetically modified biological weapon on which the Wuhan Institute was working. This is a conspiracy theory hypothesis that geneticists have refuted quite conclusively.

Another theory that went around the world was that the initial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from horseshoe bats occurred through a pangolin, a critically-scaled mammal in endangered that looks like a tiny anteater. Malaysian pangolins are known to carry a bat-like coronavirus very similar to SARS-CoV-2. Very popular on the black market for wild animals because of their tasty meat and the deemed magical properties of their scales, the absence of pangolins on the sellers lists at the Huanan market is explained by the fact that in China, there is illegal to sell them.

But this is where the unanswered questions begin.

All these months later, when the Chinese economy is back in business and the rest of the world is on its knees, the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is just one of the things that nobody knows. Despite the best collaborative efforts of scientists in China and around the world, we still do not know exactly how this new species of betacoronavirus ended up in humans in the first place.

Chinese President Xi Jinping chats with experts during his visit to the Tsinghua University School of Medicine in Beijing, China, March 2, 2020. (Yan Yan / Xinhua / Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping chats with experts during his visit to Tsinghua University School of Medicine in Beijing, China, March 2, 2020 (Yan Yan / Xinhua / Getty Images)

There remains only one irremovable obstruction which obstructs a rational and scientific understanding of how everything went so badly. This is it: the increasingly belligerent regime of Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping does not want the world to ask its own questions about what happened. The Beijing foreign ministry has been explicit on the matter, threatening to have repercussions in response to calls for an independent investigation.

Xi’s diplomats and ambassadors, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda platforms, and several official statements from the Foreign Ministry have thrown a dizzying variety of lies, false directions, and bizarre innuendos that are easily refuted since the epidemic. virus caught the world’s attention in early January. The virus was smuggled into Wuhan by the United States military; the epidemic started in Italy and not at all in China; and (this one dragged on until February), the virus was much less a public health problem than “the American flu”. That sort of thing.

The European Union’s external affairs office took note of it in a report that enraged Beijing – although European sensitivity to Beijing’s response seems to have prompted European officials to water down the report. However, the report concludes that Russia and China “have continued to target conspiracy stories and misinformation widely both to the EU public and to the wider neighborhood”.

While Chinese scientists took care to collaborate with colleagues from Western universities and government institutions, in April, the Chinese Ministry of Education began to insist on checking research papers before they were published in academic journals. Studies on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 required special examination.

Beijing also strongly opposed the idea of ​​an independent and impartial investigation to find answers to some of the most basic questions that should have been easily resolved to date. Among these questions, these two stand out: how is it that the pandemic spread with such ease and speed around the world? Why couldn’t we see what was going to happen?

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This is how the pandemic spread.

Every day, tens of thousands of travelers leave China on international flights to the four corners of the world. After the admission of the National Health Commission on January 20 that the SARS virus in Wuhan was transmissible by human contagion, five million people were allowed to leave Wuhan. Wuhan Prefecture was not locked until January 23.

What science says about the voyages undertaken by SARS-CoV-2 and the different routes taken from Wuhan to find its way around the world, is a story told most precisely in the form of data accumulated and updated daily by GISAID , a Munich-based public-private partnership, hosted by the German government.

Originally launched in response to the deadly H5N1 “bird flu” that erupted worldwide in 2003, GISAID data, obtained from samples of the SARS-CoV-2 genome provided by laboratories around the world, is presented from the most lively way by scientists and technicians working with an open source scientific collaboration known as Nextstrain. The Nextstrain data project started with a handful of virus samples and ended up sampling 4,115 genomes between December and April.

What the data shows is a surprising story of several routes taken by SARS-CoV-2, sometimes appearing in a particular country once, directly from China, or several times. Sometimes SARS-CoV-2 appears after making one, two or more stops along the way.

For countries like Taiwan, New Zealand and South Korea, the SARS-CoV-2 footprints end quite abruptly in the country, usually as soon as they appear. In severely affected countries, such as Italy, SARS-CoV-2 has occurred several times, directly and indirectly. The epicenter of the crisis in the United States is New York, where almost all of SARS-CoV-2’s arrivals came from Europe, after arriving in Europe from travelers who had been in China or had been in contact with travelers from China. .

A snapshot of March 18 showing the pathways of the virus; Canada was effectively closed to travel, but many of the cases that arrived in this country passed through the United States (Nextstrain)

A snapshot of the Nextstrain site showing the pathways of the virus on March 18; Canada was effectively closed to travel, but many of the travelers who brought the pathogen to this country had traveled to the United States (Nextstrain)

In the case of Canada, the first handful came from China and Iran, but almost from the start, SARS-CoV-2 also arrived via the United States. The overwhelming number of travelers who ultimately brought the virus to Canada transported it to the United States. It wasn’t until March 24, about a week after Ottawa more or less closed all international arrivals, that “community transmission” was the predominant cause of infection in Canada.

The story that science tells is not nice to the government of Justin Trudeau – not so much to keep Canada’s borders open long after most developed countries have closed theirs, but to have imposed a variety of measures. clumsily implemented airport controls that several scientific studies have found largely useless – Including a major study co-authored by Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada.

But science most brutally disadvantages the numerous denials and “accounts” of disinformation disseminated by the Chinese authorities, as well as the multiple repeated warnings of the WHO against travel bans and against the “stigmatization” of China. If you follow all the SARS-CoV-2 DNA prints left behind, back, they all lead to Wuhan.

So why can’t we see it coming?

On April 20, Minister of International Development Karina Gould published a reading from a conversation she had with WHO Director-General Tedros, saying that they had both agreed that there was a “critical need” to review WHO’s treatment of the pandemic. . But such examinations are the standard operating procedure for WHO, and an ordinary internal examination is unlikely to shed any light on the matter.

The Trump White House has temporarily suspended US contributions to WHO pending consideration of the agency’s controversial deference to the unlikely events in Beijing. But outside of Canada, even the United States’ allies who opposed Trump’s decision are critical of WHO’s handling of the pandemic and Beijing’s suppression of information about the events in Wuhan.

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After a conference call between G7 ministers in April, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab told reporters that the United Kingdom would like a full investigation into the causes of the pandemic and how it got out of control in Wuhan. “I don’t think we can back off at all, it must be driven by science,” said Raab. Britain cannot return to “business as usual” with China after what happened, he added.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he intends to press for an independent investigation among other UN member states into the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body that oversees WHO. In response, the Chinese ambassador to Australia threatened to boycott Australian wine exports and create hardship for the Australian beef industry, as well as the specter of a boycott of Chinese tourists.

Even without an appropriate investigation, the facts already known tell a compelling and overwhelming story.

In the weeks leading up to Beijing’s January 20 admission that the new dangerous virus in Wuhan was contagious between people, two large provincial Communist Party rallies were allowed to be held in Wuhan and Hubei. Party officials in Wuhan Prefecture convened its annual January 18 Lunar New Year banquet, which was attended by tens of thousands, two days before Beijing announced what it had known for weeks: the virus that would be called SARS-CoV-2 was easily able to spread between people.

On January 20, the beast had already been untied from the world. That same day, the United States reported its first case to WHO. South Korea too. Hundreds of people with symptoms indicative of the new coronavirus disease were already coming to emergency departments in Hubei Province and elsewhere in China. On January 10, the first death in China was officially confirmed. A 61-year-old man from the Huanan market cluster.

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