Coronavirus: leading Hong Kong microbiologist retracts op-ed claiming pandemic began in Wuhan

Gary Cheung

A world-renowned microbiologist has stepped into a political minefield by writing an op-ed about the origin and naming of the coronavirus sweeping the world, expressing views that aligned with the Trump administration’s rhetoric over the pandemic and left him in the cross hairs of mainland Chinese.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Hong Kong, retracted late Wednesday night the piece he co-wrote and which Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper had published and ran online earlier that day.

The authors also apologised for the misunderstanding caused by the piece, titled: “The pandemic originated from Wuhan and the lessons from 17 years ago have been forgotten.”

They argued that the idea the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 originated in the United States is “unsubstantiated”.

“It amounts to self-deceit and please don’t spread it recklessly. It would only invite ridicule,” they wrote.

Yuen, who is also an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, visited Wuhan with other doctors at the invitation of the central government in mid-January as part of an expert group that later confirmed the coronavirus was spreading between people.

The other author was Yuen’s protégé, Dr David Lung, an honorary assistant professor with the department of microbiology of the University of Hong Kong, who is also a clinical microbiologist specialising in paediatric infectious diseases at the Hong Kong Children’s Hospital.

They wrote that epidemiological studies indicated the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei province, was where the virus spread.

Perhaps nobody is more patriotic than I am

Yuen Kwok-yung, professor at the University of Hong Kong

The article went on to defend the media’s early references to the “Wuhan virus”, despite the World Health Organisation labelling the disease Covid-19 and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses naming the virus Sars-Cov-2.

Yuen and Lung argued “Wuhan virus” was a layman’s term established through convention and usage, one that was easy to understand and communicate to people.

But perhaps the most inflammatory claim was contained in their criticism of China for failing to shut wildlife markets in the aftermath of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. They said the trade and consumption of wild animals was a manifestation of the “inferior culture” of Chinese people.

Quarantine personnel in protective gear collect samples at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan on January 22. Photo: Simon Song

The op-ed also noted Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and the Republic of China – the title Taiwan officially uses – had been spared the worst of the outbreak, which is now raging throughout Europe and sweeping across the United States.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and by Wednesday afternoon, Ming Pao had added a note at the end of the article saying the two authors had changed “Republic of China” to “Taiwan”. The authors’ original wording in the body of the text remained unchanged.

Upon retracting the piece, Yuen and Lung said that their lifelong ambition was to pursue scientific truth and that they had no intention of getting involved in politics. They apologised for “inappropriate” expressions and “some wrong use of words”, as well as the misunderstanding caused, their statement said.

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In an interview with Shenzhen TV aired on Wednesday night, Yuen said that “perhaps nobody is more patriotic than I am” and that the most important matter was to “face the truth”.

Speaking to the Post on Thursday, Yuen also denied he was behind a letter that circulated online stating he was unaware the article had been published under his name. He declined to comment further, while Lung told the Post he had “nothing more to add”.

US President Donald Trump has labelled the coronavirus the “China virus”. Photo: EPA

For weeks, Washington and Beijing have been waging a war of words over responsibility for the pandemic, worsening ties that were showing signs of improving after an initial deal over their protracted trade war.

US President Donald Trump has blamed the Covid-19 outbreak on a “Chinese virus”, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called it the “Wuhan coronavirus” – comments China’s foreign ministry has denounced.

“Some politicians in the US associated the coronavirus with China, and smeared China,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Tuesday. “China expresses its strong anger and opposition to that.”

The rhetoric has come from both sides however, with Zhao Lijian, a ministry spokesman last week tweeting that the virus might be linked the US Army’s participation in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October.

Mainland Chinese sensitivity about attributing the origin of the new coronavirus can be seen in social media reaction towards a People’s Daily post on Weibo, which carried Zhong Nanshan, the mainland’s leading respiratory disease authority, reiterating his view on Wednesday that “the outbreak starting in Wuhan doesn’t necessarily mean [the virus] originated from Wuhan”. The posting has been shared by more than 13,000 users and attracted at least 690,000 “likes”.

Renowned Chinese respiratory specialist Zhong Nanshan has argued the coronavirus may not have originated in Wuhan. Photo: Xinhua

Many of the comments that received the highest number of responses shared a similar theme: that the new coronavirus should be attributed to the US and Trump.

Comments on the WeChat account of Shenzhen TV were more divided in their support for Yuen.

“Thanks Prof Yuen who wrote for truth, science and lives! Politics should stay away from scientists”, one viewer called “VK” wrote. “Yan”, another viewer who commented on the interview, wrote: “Telling truth is about science, and speaking with sincerity is about morality. I support Prof Yuen – but he needs to be more vigilant about politically sensitive subjects”.

Another viewer, “Moshi”, was more critical, writing: “The origin of this virus is yet to be determined. How dare this so-called expert give his verdict? I wonder why he sounded like he was complimenting the Americans’ tone! Is the timing coincidental or deliberate?”

Beijing should close down live-animal food markets

Dr Cheung Chor-yung, a senior teaching fellow at the department of public policy at City University in Hong Kong, said it was unfortunate the piece was published at a time when mistrust between the US and China was on the rise.

“The article made some good points in educating ordinary people about the virus [and] analysing the origin of the virus,” Cheung said. “But at times it spilled over from scientific reasoning and made some subjective judgments. The two academics are entitled to express their views but it’s imaginable that they are in a difficult position amid the tensions between the US and China.”

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said Yuen would not have retracted the article under pressure from his university nor the Hong Kong government, given his academic standing,

By reasonable deduction, the pressure should [have] come from the mainland authorities

Ivan Choy, political scientist at Chinese University

“Their arguments are inconsistent with Beijing’s official lines. By reasonable deduction, the pressure should [have] come from the mainland authorities,” Choy said.

This is not the first time Yuen has had a brush with politics. In July 2015, he resigned as a member of the HKU Council because he felt powerless to resolve a controversy over the appointment of moderate democratic scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun to the post of pro-vice-chancellor.

His resignation came after students and others stormed a council meeting to oppose the deferral of Chan’s appointment. “I don’t have any political training, but the council is a miniature version of society,” Yuen said at the time, adding it would be better for him to study mucormycosis.

Additional reporting by Matt Ho

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