Coronavirus: scientists say US-China ‘political drama’ is impeding progress on tracing Covid-19’s path

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US government requests from China for early coronavirus samples make sense as part of efforts to bring the pandemic under control and avoid future ones, but the “political drama” around the efforts is undermining progress, two public health experts warned.

RNA viruses like Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, mutate about once a month, making them “essentially a clock that enables one to extrapolate when the virus actually evolved”, said Dr Barry Bloom, an infectious disease specialist and professor of public health at Harvard University.

“Some mutations become fingerprints that let you know that the viruses in the early outbreaks in Seattle came directly from China, whereas those in New York City and much of the rest of the US actually came from Europe by travellers,” he said.

Understanding how the virus evolved and knowing how it entered the US, therefore, would help public health officials plan more effectively as the contagion continues to spread. Covid-19 has killed almost 76,000 people in the US since the first patient in the country was identified in January, and the number of cases, now at more than 1.25 million, continues to rise.

For weeks, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said repeatedly that Beijing has declined to provide virus samples taken from patients when the contagion began spreading in China late last year. He has also accused Chinese authorities of destroying samples, without providing evidence.

Pompeo has also supported allegations that Sars-CoV-2 escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the health crisis began. His comments stirred conjecture about the origins of the coronavirus, including suggestions that it was bio-engineered.

Weighing in on the matter, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement last week, saying that it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified”.

Pompeo slams China over Hong Kong protesters’ arrest and coronavirus toll

Pompeo said on Wednesday that US authorities have made multiple formal requests for viral isolates and information about “patient zero”. When asked if he has received any replies, he told reporters they should ask the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai.

The embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

“Trying to obtain the earliest viral RNA in the pandemic is an important endeavour, but I just don’t understand the need to do that with the State Department first, and publicly with conspiracy theories that are still around,” said David Larsen, a public health professor at Syracuse University who has studied the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.

Larsen said that there were other reasons for China to share the viral isolates beyond tracing the pandemic’s initial path, but argued that such exchanges would likely have been more productive if left to the two countries’ scientists instead of the US State Department.

“From a future prevention standpoint, it's important to understand where the virus came from,” Larsen said. “Our science is not very good at figuring out which viruses circulating in other animals might potentially jump over to humans and then become able to circulate among humans.”

“Infectious disease doesn’t respect borders,” he added. “It doesn’t respect the political clashes between different nations, and so we need to figure out a way to work together, to have scientists work great together, because scientists could care less about the political drama.”

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