On the afternoon of September 18 last year, the customs office at Wuhan Tianhe airport received an emergency message that a passenger on an incoming flight was unwell and distressed with breathing difficulties.
Staff at the glistening modern airport rushed into emergency mode, donning protective masks as managers unleashed their action plans.
Soon afterwards, ‘the Wuhan First Aid Centre reported that the transfer case had been clinically diagnosed as a novel type of coronavirus’, according to a journalist from a state media agency.
This was, the agency reported, a drill to test responses in advance of the World Military Games, which were being held the following month with 10,000 competitors due in the fast-growing city in central China. Officials passed with flying colours.
Yet what a strange coincidence they picked that particular exercise, given what was soon to unfold in Wuhan as birthplace of a global pandemic. As one person later asked on social media: ‘Why did they choose a new coronavirus to drill?’
Now this question has become all the more pertinent with last week’s revelation that French athletes think they caught Covid-19 while competing in those games.
Several fell ill with bad flu-like symptoms during the event, which took place over nine days from October 18. ‘A lot of athletes at the World Military Games were very ill,’ said Elodie Clouvel, a world champion modern pentathlete.
This followed the revelation that a fishmonger treated in a Paris hospital for suspected pneumonia on December 27 had been confirmed as a victim of the new virus. He was baffled since he had not travelled abroad.
This is very significant. China notified the disease to the World Health Organisation four days after the Frenchman was in hospital and did not put Wuhan into lockdown for a further 24 days.
One study found this virus spreads so fast that if officials had acted three weeks sooner, they would have reduced cases by 95 per cent. Even one week faster could have cut numbers by two-thirds.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, is a transport hub. Over three crucial months from December, there were 7,530 flights between there and other parts of China, carrying more than one million passengers – and ten direct flights to the UK.
Yet even in January, Chinese leaders prevented expert outside teams from investigating the virus, silenced doctors trying to warn citizens and refused to admit there was human transmission until January 20.
Little wonder that as the world death toll soars, families are devastated and economies shattered, there are growing calls for an international inquiry into the origins of this pandemic, despite the brazen defiance of Beijing’s Communist Party chiefs.
So what do we now know about the origins of the virus outbreak? Certainly as that exercise at the airport proved, these are not unpredictable events.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that last year, Shi Zhengli – a world-renowned expert on coronaviruses, known as Bat Woman for her cave expeditions to collect samples from the nocturnal mammals – warned explicitly about the dangers.
In a paper published with three colleagues in March 2019, she admitted it was ‘highly likely’ there would be a coronavirus outbreak originating from bats ‘and there is an increased probability this will occur in China’.
Zhengli, who helped prove the link to bats through consumption of civet cats in the 2002 SARS epidemic, said: ‘Chinese food culture maintains that live slaughtered animals are more nutritious, and this belief may enhance viral transmission.
‘It is generally believed bat-borne coronaviruses will re-emerge to cause the next disease outbreak. In this regard, China is a likely hotspot.’ She was, of course, correct. But China’s politicians did nothing to close down their hideous markets selling animals grabbed from the wild – until on January 1 they suddenly shut the one in Wuhan they blamed for this latest eruption of disease.
A stream of expert papers has pinpointed the virus to the market. One typical study by leading Chinese scientists insisted the cluster of mysterious pneumonia-like symptoms began emerging on December 21.
‘All current evidence points to wild animals sold illegally in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market,’ it said. Many experts around the world agree with this analysis. Even last week, a paper in Nature by Chinese scientists pointed to the possibility of pangolin (a scaly mammal) as ‘intermediate host’ of SARS- CoV-2, which causes the disease. They said, rightly, that failure to control the illegal wildlife trade threatened public health.
Yet the market link remains unproven. There are valid questions over whether the coronavirus might have inadvertently leaked from two laboratories in the city – one near to the market, the other China’s first with top-level bio-security status.
President Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State, said they have seen evidence that the virus came from one of the laboratories. Reports suggest several US intelligence agencies suspect the same but lack a ‘smoking gun’.
The Mail on Sunday has exposed poor security, including a picture of a sub-standard seal on a refrigerated vault holding lethal viruses, and an admission from the head of Wuhan Institute of Virology’s bio-safety team of deficient safety procedures.
An academic paper in February by Botao Xiao, a bioscience professor at South China University of Technology, and Lei Xiao, a researcher based in Wuhan, concluded ‘the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan’.
The document – entitled The Possible Origins Of 2019-nCoV Coronavirus – was published on a site used by scientists to share research. It called for tighter security in high-risk laboratories but was mysteriously withdrawn after two days.
This explosive paper – seen by The Mail on Sunday – said 605 bats were kept in the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, which is about 500 yards from the market.
It described how bats attacked, bled and urinated on one researcher, forcing him into quarantine on two occasions. ‘It is plausible that the virus leaked,’ it said.
Some in the media have dismissed such suggestions by conflating them with online conspiracy theories about man-made diseases and bio-weapons – presumably driven by loathing of Trump rather than sympathy for China’s totalitarian regime. Yet we need to establish the truth if remotely possible.
‘It would be incredibly useful to know where the new coronavirus came from so we can prevent this happening again,’ said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University.
So how much can we decipher on the details and timing of this outbreak by sifting through academic research papers, media reports and social-media posts? Let us start with a fascinating report in the respected South China Morning Post, based on data said to come from the Beijing government that traced the virus to November 17. It did not rule out the possibility of earlier cases.
The report pinpointed a 55-year-old from Hubei as the first known case. Yet the authorities, it said, could not pinpoint who was Patient Zero from the nine initial cases –four men and five women, aged between 39 and 79.
There were then one to five new cases each day – and on December 27, a hospital doctor called Zhang Jixian confirmed they were dealing with a new coronavirus.
This conflicts with an influential study published in January by Chinese researchers in The Lancet, which claimed the ‘symptom onset date’ of the first identified patient was December 1.
This study also found that 27 out of their sample of 41 patients admitted to hospital in the early stages ‘had been exposed to the market’.
Wu Wenjuan, one of the authors and a senior doctor at Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases, told the BBC Chinese service that their first patient was an elderly man suffering from dementia.
‘He lived four or five buses from the seafood market – and because he was sick, he basically didn’t go out,’ she said, adding that three more people developed symptoms in the following days, although only one had ‘exposure’ to the market.
Her words tie in to a graphic in the study that shows one case on December 1, three on December 10 and then none until December 15. Only one of the initial four cases was linked to the market – but then all of the next ten.
Wuhan’s government claimed that the first confirmed case fell sick on December 8, a man who recovered from the illness. It said that he denied going to the animal market.
Yet that Lancet study also contains another intriguing nugget. The first fatal case is identified as a man linked to the market. Five days after ‘illness onset’, his wife – ‘a 53-year-old woman who had no known history of exposure to the market’ – also turned up before doctors with pneumonia and was hospitalised in an isolation ward.
Wu Wenjuan also told the Wall Street Journal that their earliest cases included a 49-year-old trader at the market who fell ill on December 12.
Seven days later, his father-in-law – who had not been exposed to the market – caught the illness. Then doctors and nurses started falling ill by December 25, which was revealed by reports in state media.
These cases all clearly imply human-to-human transmission several weeks before it was publicly admitted by Beijing. This crucial information was finally confirmed to the world just four days before that important paper was published in The Lancet.
Five days earlier, Li Qun, head of China’s public health emergency centre, even told state television that ‘after careful screening and prudent judgment, we have reached the latest understanding that risk of human-to-human transmission is low’.
Yet another paper in the New England Journal Of Medicine confirmed that Chinese doctors saw evidence of human transmission ‘among close contacts since the middle of December 2019’.
And a team from Wuhan Centre for Disease Control published a paper in Nature Microbiology last month that mentioned swabs being taken ‘from patients in Wuhan with influenza-like illness from October 6, 2019, to January 21, 2020’.
The beginning of October is earlier than any other experts have indicated signs of this virus. These researchers found nine out of their 640 swabs tested positive – but then concluded that this suggested ‘community transmission’ in early January this year.
One blogger also spotted a tantalising fact: in July last year, China’s National Health Commission issued an edict on protection against infectious diseases that urged all localities to strengthen their monitoring of ‘flu-like cases, unexplained pneumonia’.
The bulletin – unsupported by relevant data and absent from a similar earlier notice – added that after any outbreak, there must be quick ‘epidemiological investigations, laboratory tests, and implementing measures such as disinfection and treatment of epidemic areas to prevent spread’. Clearly that failed to happen.
In their defence, China’s authorities were confronting a new virus. Yet their country had already seen two previous ‘zoonotic’ (animal-to-human) coronaviruses emerge within its borders this century, inflicting less lethal pandemics on our planet.
Significantly, Lianchao Han, a Chinese dissident and former foreign office official, says: ‘The lack of bioethics and their money-driven race to find vaccines for viruses make Chinese scientists very reckless in handling the most dangerous virus.
‘Their repeated refusal to let international experts investigate the origin of the virus makes it very suspicious the regime is hiding something.’
Many mysteries still swirl around this saga.
Last weekend, claims that ‘Bat Woman’ Shi had defected with a stash of secret documents were denied in Chinese media.
Chinese ‘netizens’ [millions of web users] have queried if Huang Yanling, a student at Wuhan Institute of Virology, might have been Patient Zero after becoming infected in the laboratory.
This was denied, with officials saying she had moved to another part of China.
So many questions; so few answers. Yet as the global death toll passes 275,000, one thing seems certain: the culpability of China’s authorities in covering up the new disease that erupted with such terrible force from somewhere in Wuhan last year.