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China as a Potential Hub for Future Pandemics – Center of Policy Research & Governance
Dr. Janhawi

The world-wide coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2, started from China and has been reported in over 205 countries and territories so far. The virus is spreading via saliva droplets released into the air with sneeze/cough. Respiratory viral infections are most fearful and serious infections as the droplets hang in the air for a very long time and have high potential to spread like a wildfire. The mortality rate ranges from 0.2-15% (depending on age and health complication of the patient). Older individuals (>60) and patients with preexisting conditions (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking habit and heart problems) are more prone to fatal infections.

Chinese authorities were focused on the name of the virus rather than the disease itself

Wuhan, China is the epicentre of the infection but surprisingly the Chinese government is more concerned about the ‘economical impact’ of naming this strain of coronavirus as Wuhan Virus rather than the ‘mortality and morbidity impact’ of the disease itself. It is worth mention here that the COVID-19 is one of a type from the coronavirus family. There are several strains of coronaviruses but naming one of them as the family itself is very confusing.

Initially, China accepted on 31st December that the coronavirus originated from the seafood market in Wuhan but from last few weeks, the Chinese government has started its rhetoric propaganda politics of denial.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian On March 4 stated: “We are still tracing the origin of the virus and there is no conclusion yet.” He slammed media for calling coronavirus as “China virus,” and that this is “extremely irresponsible”. Over and above he tweeted: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” on which Greg Barbaccia, former U.S. Army intelligence officer said, “what surprises me is that they think people would believe this, something even any college-educated Chinese won’t.”

At the same time, left-leaning MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes went on to the extent to claim that naming coronavirus as Wuhan virus is “racist” making us wonder how Wuhan- a city, can be categorized as ‘race’! This incident makes us recall the last year news where a bacteria was called New Delhi superbug because it was first detected in a Swedish patient of Indian origin. The silence of these self-claimed progressive media houses on a ‘similar issue but a different country’ simply reinforce our doubts over their biased and selective outrage.

Political edge, dead and dying

The domestic and international reaction of the Chinese government after the outbreak made us doubt their priorities. There are several proofs and pieces of evidence that the government delayed the crisis management and even intensified the disease outbreak by weighing more about its economic development rather than the lives of people all across the globe. As Pomfret explained in ‘China’s Crisis Has a Political Edge,’ and for which China had to apologize in earlier similar situations. The delay in the information to the world about this deadly virus was by approximately 3 months as Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert and professor of infectious diseases at Georgetown University said that there is a high probability that the disease must have been travelling and infecting people in China from October 2019.

Not only the international arena, but even the Chinese nationals were also kept in dark and were not informed about the lurking danger by their government. Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower and several such dissenters were forced to accept that they lied and misinformed when they reported about the disease. It is so-called normal for a country where capital punishments, simply for demanding basic human rights are way too often (milk scandal 2008 and contaminated vaccine scandal, 2018). On 3 January, the National Health Commission of China ordered not to publish any information related to COVID-19 and ordered labs to destroy any samples they had. The government was irresponsible enough to spread false assurance to the citizens preceding the approach of the Chinese New Year celebration on the 25th of January during which millions travelled to and fro the Wuhan and other cities2.

Game of denials and disapprovals


Corona outbreak is not the first case where China ignored the elephant in the room and certainly it is not the last. When in Nov 2002, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) started to infect and kill people in China, Asia, Europe and America, the political approach and cold response was exactly similar to what happened in this latest outbreak. In April 2003, WHO officials went to China for an inspection but were not even allowed to visit patients or any hospital. However, WHO promptly declared it an epidemic.

It is not new for the Chinese government and officials, where they have tried their level best to underreport and misreport the infectious diseases in the name of ‘efforts to inhibit the dampening of the national economy’. Chinese government kept on denying and disapproving any epidemic or communicable infection in the population. In the same month of WHO visit, the first official state meeting was conducted in a hurry on the epidemic; which was 6 months after the full-blown disease outbreak in the Chinese population.

Recent cover-ups and delayed reporting of the novel coronavirus outbreak is just another tragic example of the autocratic communist Chinese government to change and distort the narratives, facts, inhibit freedom of expression of the whistleblowers/protesters and regulation of the data/ information as per their convenience.

 COVID-19 is neither first nor last viral outbreak from China

During the past two decades, three zoonotic coronaviruses have been identified as the cause of worldwide large-scale disease outbreaks–Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, and Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome (SADS) in 2017. SARS-CoV infected around 8000 individuals with a mortality of 10% during the 2002–2003 pandemic whereas MERS-CoV resulted in 2249 cases of infection with an average mortality of 35.5% (until September 2018). Fifteen years after the first highly pathogenic human coronavirus SARS-CoV outbreak, SADS-CoV was the cause of more than 20,000 piglet’s death. COVID-19 and the above mentioned earlier coronavirus outbreaks have some characteristic similarities. All of them are highly pathogenic, 3/4 viruses originated in China and spread to the world and 3/4 viruses were bat-borne.

Majority of the Corona virus in the world (33/40) is found in China, which is the most populous nation in the world. It is a vast homeland with diverse climates which promotes biodiversity including that of bats and viruses. Most of the coronavirus species (22/38) were named by scientists studying local bats or other mammals in China. Bats are the only power flyer mammals on Earth. They can fly to long distances, a feature very rare in mammals. They are genetically closer to humans as compared to any other bird. The viruses which infect or use bats as a reservoir are more prone to infect us too with very few genetic modifications/mutations in themselves.

Most of these bat species exist in close proximity with humans and the bat’s flight ability help the bat-borne viruses in better transmission, dispersal and infection in humans and other animals. The genetic and physical proximity of bats with a human makes the bat-borne viral disease more prone to re-emerge and cause the next disease outbreak. The genome size of Corona virus is one of the largest among the RNA viruses and this allows several permutations by recombination, gene interchange, gene insertion or deletion and is the reason of higher replication fidelity. This genomic expansion also allows the virus to adapt to specific as well as different hosts easily. Due to the application of advanced techniques we have been able to analyze that the CoV subfamily is increasing very rapidly and its taxonomy is changing dynamically.

The world after COVID-19, call a spade a spade


There is a famous saying that Chinese eat anything with four legs but a table, anything that flies but an aeroplane, and anything that swims except a submarine. Chinese food culture believes that slaughtering animals alive in front of the buyer conserves the freshness and nutrition of the meat but this enhances the scope of disease transmission. The wet meat trade is largely unregulated and hardly follows food and safety regulations. The probability of rapid dispersal of transmittable diseases gets many folds higher in such conditions. The negligence of government regarding the proper regulations for the meat market puts us all at high risk of blindly heading towards major health catastrophe.

The wet food market becomes a hotbed for viruses to transmit in its similar hosts, modify its genetics and change hosts. The dispersal rate increases with the help of a huge variety of animals and the population of human who comes there. Thus, it is highly likely that future SARS, MERS or COVID-19 coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China. In this regard, China is a likely hotspot and it will not be an exaggeration to call China, a viral ticking time bomb. The challenge is to predict when and where so that we can try our best to prevent such outbreaks. It is thus an international urgency to take serious and strict measures to avoid any new outbreak, keeping an eye on the regressive and ‘brush under the carpet’ attitude of the government of China.