The coronavirus pandemic is widely believed to have originated almost a year ago in a wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, but a state media outlet suggests the deadly bug may have arrived via frozen food imports from other countries.
The Global Times reported Sunday that Western countries had tried to “shift the narrative from their own shortcomings” by accusing Wuhan of being “where the coronavirus began.”
“As the mounting sporadic outbreaks in China were found to be related to imported cold-chain products, with other parts of the world, including Europe and the American continent, reportedly discovering signs of the coronavirus earlier than Wuhan, it begs a new hypothesis: did the early outbreak in Wuhan originate from imported frozen food?” it wrote.
In May, China’s top health official argued that the infamous wet market at the epicenter of the pandemic was unfairly made to be the scapegoat for the outbreak, which has killed more than 1.5 million people and infected about 67 million around the globe as of Monday.
“At first, we assumed the seafood market might have the virus, but now the market is more like a victim,” George Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times at the time.
Gao suggested that the bug had been circulating for a while before the outbreak, saying samples collected from animals in the market in early January showed no traces of the virus.
In its article Sunday, the publication noted that “although it might be too early to jump to conclusions, the possibility that the coronavirus was passed on from cold-chain products into Wuhan, or more specifically, to the Huanan wet market, where the sale of frozen products was once prevalent, cannot be ruled out.”
Security guards patrol outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.AFP via Getty Images
The Global Times acknowledged that “more evidence is needed,” but urged scientists around the world “to join hands to further research this hypothesis and pinpoint the origin of the virus.”
The outlet reported that “the mounting flare-ups of COVID-19 in China have been tied to imported frozen products and even shipping containers as Western countries face the onslaught of a new wave of outbreaks as winter comes to the Northern Hemisphere.”
The Global Times also reported that locals it had interviewed “believe that the virus was brought by the Americans during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October 2019.”
Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, told the outlet that during the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, patients came mainly from the frozen seafood area of the market.
Wu added that seafood has caused flare-ups in Beijing, Dalian and Qingdao, raising the question whether Wuhan’s outbreak also was triggered by imported seafood.
“This gives us a lead, a new way of thinking,” the top epidemiologist told the Global Times.
“Even if the hypothesis is backed by professionals, the possibility of cold-chain products causing Wuhan’s outbreak is still not fully understood,” the news outlet admitted.
The Global Times said its reporters “found from media reports that stores in the Huanan Seafood Market used to sell imported cold-chain seafood, such as king crab and arctic shellfish, as well as meat products from Brazil and Germany.
It said the city also imported Australian steak, Chilean cherries and Ecuadorian seafood before 2019, citing information from the website of the city’s commerce bureau.
Chinese officials have previously claimed to have detected the virus on frozen products including squid from Russia and salmon from Norway, according to The Morning Bulletin of Australia.
The World Health Organization has said there is no evidence of the virus being transmitted this way, but Beijing is now doubling down on the theory.
On Oct. 17, the Chinese CDC said it had detected the bug in a sample from the outer packaging of imported frozen cod while tracing an outbreak in East China’s Qingdao, according to The Global Times.
“The idea never crossed our minds before. But now it seems plausible that the virus may have been imported to Wuhan via imported cold-chain products,” Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the outlet.
Workers catch a giant salamander that was reported to have escaped from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China.AP
Chinese customs officials discovered that seafood imported from several countries was contaminated with the coronavirus, according to the publication.
“Theoretically, it is possible that coronavirus from other countries caused the early outbreak in Wuhan, but we lack evidence,” an anonymous Beijing-based expert told the Global Times.
He noted that the infections occasionally triggered by cold-chain imports may be because other countries have been severely affected by the virus now.
“We cannot conclude so far if the coronavirus existed in other countries before the early cases showed in Wuhan,” he said.
Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster told the Global Times that he is not surprised that there might be cases earlier than those from China.
“My dating suggests sometime between September and December 2019,” the virologist said. “Everyone agrees it was prominent in Northern Italy in February 2020. Some scientists said it came to Italy from China, but I am not so sure.”