In research preprint, Chinese scientists claim COVID-19 may have originated in India or Bangladesh

The scientists have argued that since India and Bangladesh reported the least number of mutations and are neighbouring countries to China, the Indian subcontinent may be the origin of the first COVID-19 transmission

FP Staff November 29, 2020 10:42:39 IST
In research preprint, Chinese scientists claim COVID-19 may have originated in India or Bangladesh

A visualisation of the COVID-19 virus. Image courtesy Fusion Medical Animation

Editor's Note: The headline of this piece has been updated to reflect that this is a preprint of a paper.

Battling global adversity over the coronavirus and bracing for a WHO inquiry over its origin, China on Friday claimed that just because COVID-19 cases were first reported in Wuhan does not mean the contagion originated from the central Chinese city.

The preprint of a paper by researchers at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences suggests the virus existed on the Indian subcontinent before the Wuhan outbreak in December last year: but the theory is disputed.

The research, entitled ‘The Early Cryptic Transmission and Evolution of Sars-Cov-2 in Human Hosts’, challenges general orthodoxy among scientists that the virus originated in the wet markets of Wuhan.

It was posted on SSRN.Com, the preprint platform of the medical journal The Lancet, on 17 November and bases its findings on research into strains of the virus provided by 17 different countries, reports The Financial Express.

As per Deccan Herald, the paper, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, used a method called phylogenetic analysis, a technique where scientists study the mutations of the virus, to assess the origin of the coronavirus .

According to this phylogenetic analysis, the method rules out Wuhan as a site of origin of the coronavirus but nominates Bangladesh, India, the US, Greece, Australia, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, and Serbia as potential countries.

As per the paper, since India and Bangladesh reported the least number of mutations and are neighbouring countries to China, the scientists have estimated that the Indian subcontinent may be the origin of the first COVID-19 transmission.

The research, led by Dr Shen Libing, claimed the traditional approach to tracing the origin of coronavirus strains did not work as it used a bat virus discovered in Yunnan, southwest China, several years ago.

Various outlets of the state-run Chinese media have been too been carrying reports in recent days stating that a number of imported food products from different countries, including a consignment of fish from India, were found to have traces of the COVID-19 alleging that the virus may have entered China through foreign routes.

Asked whether that is China's official view too, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing that even though China was the first to report coronavirus but doesn't necessarily mean China is where the virus originated.

"So we believe the origin process is a complex scientific issue which requires joint efforts on COVID-19 cooperation from the scientific community worldwide. Only by doing so we can guard against future risks because origin tracing is an evolving and sustained process that involves many countries and regions", he said.

His response came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) team to investigate the origin of the virus is due to arrive in China, even though Beijing is yet to give a timeline.

COVID-19 cases first emerged in Wuhan in December last year before turning into a global pandemic with the worldwide death toll crossing over 1.4 million.

China besides denying the US allegations that the virus emerged from a secretive bio-lab in Wuhan also refuted allegations that it emanated from a wet market in the city from bats or pangolins before infecting humans.

The market has been sealed off ever since.

In May, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the 194-member states of the WHO, approved a resolution to set up an independent inquiry to conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response as well as that of WHO.

It also asked the WHO to investigate the "source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population".

China, which has backed the inquiry with a rider that it should commence after the coronavirus was brought under control, said it is getting ready to receive the WHO experts' team.

WHO emergency expert Dr Mike Ryan told the media early this week that his organisation has had assurances from China that an international field trip to investigate the origins of the new coronavirus will be arranged as soon as possible.

"We fully expect that we will have a team on the ground, Ryan was quoted as saying by the state-run CGTN on 25 November.

Ryan said the Wuhan market, where the virus is reported to have originated, is "likely to have been a point of amplification" of virus transmission, but whether that was by a human, animal, or environmental spread is not yet known, the report quoted him saying.

He said that there had been human cases that preceded that event, according to the CGTN report.

With inputs from PTI

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