A new study by Chinese researchers has now claimed that the COVID-19 virus originated in the summer of 2019 in “north-central India and Pakistan” instead of the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first case of COVID-19 was reported in December last year.
As the virus reproduces, it mutates with small changes in the DNA every time. The researchers argued that the original virus can be tracked down with the strain that has the lowest mutation. The study used the method to search the least mutated strain using SARS-CoV-2 whole-genome sequences. It said that the least mutated strain is the original virus.
Using the method, the scientist believed that the evidence pointed to eight countries where the virus could have been originated. The countries are Bangladesh, the USA, Greece, Australia, India, Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia or Serbia. It eliminated the possibility that Wuhan was the city where it originated.
“Both the least mutated strain’s geographic information and the strain diversity suggest that the Indian subcontinent might be the place where the earliest human-to-human SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurred, which was three or four months prior to the Wuhan outbreak,” the paper noted.
The study further argued that the virus mutation in India and Bangladesh was low and since they are neighboring countries it raised the possibility that the first case originated there.
Moreover, the paper said that the virus originated in July or August 2019 after northern-central India and Pakistan suffered the second-longest recorded heat wave that led to a water crisis.
“The water shortage made wild animals such as monkeys engage in the deadly fight over water among each other and would have surely increased the chance of human-wild animal interactions,” said the paper. “We speculated that the [animal to human] transmission of SARS-CoV-2 might be associated with this unusual heatwave.”
The paper speculated that India’s poor healthcare infrastructure and the young population didn’t suffer severe symptoms that led to the undetected spread of the virus for months and were spread through other countries in Europe before it came to China. “In this regard, the COVID-19 pandemic is inevitable and the Wuhan epidemic is only a part of it,” it concluded.
India and China have been at loggerheads since a violent border clash broke out in June killing 20 Indian troops and an unconfirmed number on the Chinese side. Since then, the security forces have been deployed eye to eye at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Experts aren’t impressed with the paper authored by Libing Shen from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) – Institute of Neuroscience, Funan He from Fudan University – School of Life Sciences and Zhao Zhang from the University of Texas at Houston – Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
David Robertson, and an expert from Glasgow University, told Daily Mail that the paper was “very flawed” and that “it adds nothing to our understanding of coronavirus.”
“The author’s approach of identifying the “least mutated” virus sequences is inherently biased. The authors have also ignored the extensive epidemiological data available that shows clear emergence in China and that the virus spread from there. This paper adds nothing to our understanding of SARS-CoV-2,” Robertson added.
This isn’t the first time China has tried to pin the blame on other countries. Earlier, China released genome sequencing data from samples taken in Beijing, which officials there said identified a European strain based on preliminary studies, reported Reuters.
China had received a global backlash for its mishandling of the Covid-19 which has now lead to a global pandemic. When Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed an independent survey on the source of the new coronavirus, many countries including India supported the proposal which was accepted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Canberra’s demand for an independent inquiry led to a fall out of China-Australia relations with Beijing imposing import restrictions on Australia. However, now ahead of the WHO inquiry, Beijing has amplified its stance that the first reported case was in Wuhan, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it originated there as well.
“Even though China was the first to report coronavirus but doesn’t necessarily mean China is where the virus originated,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a media briefing.
“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.
An independent team of experts by WHO will land in China and find out the “source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population”. Reportedly, the team will arrive in Beijing soon, however, no official timeline has been issued yet.