By JOHN RICHARD SCHROCK
On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) country office in China transmitted to the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office the first recognition of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China. The cases were likewise confirmed by a report on ProMED (a programme of the International Society for Infectious Diseases) that day. Pneumonia is a symptom with many causes, from influenza to bacteria to other causes, but here the cause was unknown.
Also at the end of Dec. of 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, age 34, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, suspected these cases resembled the 2003 SARS outbreak. He tried to alert fellow medical workers. Three days later, the police visited and told him to stop what they considered “crying wolf.” He returned to work and caught the virus from a patient. He died three weeks later and is considered a national hero in China today.
Chinese health authorities and WHO announced the discovery of a novel coronavirus on Jan. 9, 2020 and confirmed it as the agent responsible for the pneumonia cases.
By the weekend of Jan. 11-12, Chinese researchers released the full genome sequence of the coronavirus, based on samples from the first patients. This research done in record time allowed accurate diagnostic tests to be developed as well as guidance on treatment options and potential vaccines.
By Friday, Jan. 24, the virus was detected in France in patients arriving from Wuhan, China.
By Jan. 29, the Institut Pasteur sequenced the genome of the coronavirus on behalf of WHO. Additional genome sequencing has revealed that the coronavirus has one or two small mutations each month as it spreads through different populations. Our New York pandemic would be traced back to visitors from Europe.
Viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses and on Feb. 11, ICTV announced its name was “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), chosen because the virus is genetically related to the 2003 SARS coronavirus—related but different.
The same day, WHO announced “COVID-19” as the name for the new disease, based on guidelines developed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The disease name COVID-19 (COronaVIrusDisease-2019) shows it was discovered in 2019.
Serious coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS originate in bats and transfer through other animals to humans. It was therefore thought the origin of this new virus came from the Huanan Seafood market where wild animals were sold. That market was disinfected. In January, it was assumed that only those persons who came in contact with sick and infected animals and people could catch the virus. It was also assumed that people without symptoms were healthy and you were contagious only when you were sick.
Due to perceived incompetence by city and provincial officials, by Feb. 14, Ying Yong, the mayor of Shanghai replaced Hubei party chief Jiang Chaoliang, and the head of Jinan, capital of Shangdong province replaced Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang. Lesson: don’t ignore science! Realizing the severity of COVID-19, China imposed severe internal travel restrictions on Jan. 20. Critics realize that there was not enough evidence before Jan. 14 to have begun such a shutdown. Therefore this six days is the basis for any accusation that China did not act fast enough to quarantine. It is a position held by political folks looking for a scapegoat. But not by the scientist community.
So far, there have been more than 35,000 scientific research papers published or in pre-print dealing with this pandemic. During the months of February, March and April, nearly all of these papers were by Chinese researchers and they still dominate the citations due to their early work. After April, the research switches to Europe and the U.S. because there are too few cases in China today (all imported) but the pandemic continues surging in the West.
By far the most alarming discovery was that individuals could be completely healthy (asymptomatic) and still be infectious, usually on day three or four after having become infected. This allowed much transmission by world travelers who never ran a fever or showed other symptoms. As soon as this highly unusual situation was realized, it became apparent that the infection could have been circulating, away from any meat market. And as its aerosol spread has become more recognized, it is now obvious that, similar to influenza, you could never have kept this epidemic from spreading worldwide.
Because China faced the first cases, they are also ahead in vaccine development. Three of their four major vaccines are “attenuated” or weakened coronaviruses. Their CoronaVac was the first to go to Phase 3 field research in Brazil, two weeks before our “warp drive” vaccines reached that stage and one week before the Oxford vaccine. And while China has made arrangements with Brazil and other test nations to provide them a successful vaccine if it works, China has also joined the Covax system to distribute their vaccine worldwide. (America has not.)
Because as long as COVID-19 exists anywhere, no one remains safe.
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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities in 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.