Covid-19 - Wuhan’s Bat Out of Hell

Donald Trump, keen to blame someone for the healthcare disaster that has befallen America, points to a laboratory in Wuhan as the possible source for Covid-19. However, he may find himself employing research from that same laboratory in a desperate bid to end the US wide lockdown and save his presidency.

Sobering to think a bat living in unsanitary conditions in a cave a Southwest China is responsible for us being locked in our homes, binging on Netflix and scouring the Internet for toilet rolls and pasta. The realisation that a small mammal can cause untold economic damage is particularly galling for politicians who came to power promising to make their countries great again and taking back control. It is tempting therefore, faced with the prospect of appearing impotent, to blame the spread of Covid-19 on a fellow human rather than a nocturnal flying rodent. Currently in the firing line is China in general and Wuhan’s Institute of Virology in particular. Donald Trump has suggested both have done bad things, either by accident or by design, and then, with the connivance of the World Health Organisation lied to the rest of the world. Last week a report emerged highlighting concerns relayed to Washington in 2018 regarding the security of the Wuhan lab. Now so has an image a refrigerator, one used to store various pathogens, with a broken door seal, damning evidence indeed.

Officially no-one is to blame for the Covid-19 epidemic, even the bat, which was only going about its business, so to speak, gets off scot free. During and evening of foraging for insects around the lamps illuminating the Wuhan live animal market a bat carrying a corona virus defecated on one of the stalls below. The virus found its way into an animal on sale in the market and was passed onto either a customer or stallholder. Unpicking the genome of the Covid-19 has suggested the virus may have taken an indirect route to its final host; it may have been transferred back to the bat before eventually taking up home in a human. This casts some doubt on the pure accident theory.

It is possible someone picked up the Covid-19 virus while visiting a bat cave in search for animals to sell in Wuhan’s ‘wet’ market. However, a third theory, the one which currently given credence by Donald Trump assumes the person visiting the cave was collecting samples for Wuhan’s Institute of Virology. The president suggests the various components of the Covid-19 DNA came together on laboratory bench rather than a market stall. A finger has been pointed at work carried out by Shi Zhengli - who Scientific America has referred to as China’s ‘bat woman.’ Shi has spent many years seeking out bat-borne corona virus’s ‘before they find us.’ Whether or not Covid-19 originated in Shi’s laboratory it is definitely one corona virus she missed.

Things go wrong even in the best run institutions. For many years, a laboratory in Cambridge University used a block of radioactive metal as a doorstop; something only discovered when someone returned a Geiger counter to the supplier claiming it was faulty. Given what we now know about Covid-19 it is possible a researcher was exposed to the virus and became the unwitting patient zero. Unwitting because in a young person Covid-19, even if it is not asymptomatic, can easily be mistaken for a common cold.

At this point the idea the researcher was attempting to weaponise coronavirus should be knocked on the head; this is not a pathogen your simply smear of a door handle and then run away. The fear that at some point during trade negotiations Xi Jinping will hold up a glass vial and tell Donald Trump he can have the vaccine for the disease crippling the US if all tariffs on Chinese exports are dropped is farfetched in the extreme. Even so the belief that America could become the victim of biological blackmail will gain currency if Covid-19 is still out of control in the run up to the presidential election.

The possibility Covid-19 was present in Wuhan before the outbreak in the city’s live animal market fits the pattern of transmission seen in other countries. Initially the virus remains in stealth mode while it infects people showing few if any symptoms. Research workers are typically drawn from an age group within which Covid-19 transmits undetected and for the most part their families and personal contacts fit the same demographic profile. The viral load transmitted from one person to another would have so small it rarely penetrated deeper than the upper respiratory tract. Apart from the odd a flu like illness or the occasional case of pneumonia, the virus would have remained hidden. Only when an older person, or someone with an underlying health condition which caused them to breath heavily, did the virus find its way into the lower respiratory tract and cause its host significant damage. These older, compromised, victims also transmitted a viral load large enough to cause an otherwise fit and healthy young person to become seriously ill. Perhaps Wuhan’s live animal market used and staffed by the older citizens of the city, was not the origin of the epidemic but merely the place where Covid-19 was finally forced to reveal itself. This is hardly the smoking gun implicating Shi Zhengli’s research team. The evidence is circumstantial, and the Covid-19 may well have exploded in the live animal market then switched to stealth mode when it encountered younger hosts. Even so there is, still for the most part hidden, data which would shed light on this mystery.

The Chinese government, fearing it had on its hands a 21st century Chernobyl, kept secret the scale of the epidemic. In retrospect threatening Li Wenliang, who had alerted colleagues to a suspiciously large number of cases of a Sars like influenza, with prosecution was a mistake. The British government’s public health department may ignore, or even, contradict health scares reported by the media, but it stops short of locking a scientist for sending a press release to the Daily Mail. Ironically, in this case, the Chinese leadership’s heavy handed and clumsy attempt at censorship may have slowed the progress of the virus. Once news of the new disease finally became become public everyone with a cough or a temperature converged on the nearest medical centre. Wuhan’s hospital quickly took over from the live animal market as the epidemic’s epicentre. Not that the Chinese government made use of the time censorship had bought it.

At some point Shi Zhengli’s team must have become aware of Li Wenliang’s observations. If there is a fire station across the road from your house you expect someone working in it to notice if smoke and flames start coming out of your roof. Management of the Institute of Virology should have had the wherewithal to request medical records from local hospitals to check Li Wenliang’s observations. Had they done so not only the source of the virus become clearer but so would the virus’s modus operandum. This would have given both China, and the rest of the world, time to mount a strategic defence against Covid-19.

The success of Covid-19 lies in its ability to weaken, rather than destroy, its host. The 1918 Spanish flu proved fatal for the fit and able whereas Covid-19 merely paralyses them economically. Virus’s thrive in impoverished countries with crippled healthcare systems. This is doubling galling for a politician who has promised to make his country great again, keep it prosperous and ensure the world is safe for its citizens. It is unlikely there will be a Covid-19 vaccine before the US presidential elections. The man who claims to have a natural ability for science may be forced to look again at work carried out in the laboratory he blames for starting this pandemic. He may wonder out loud if it possible to isolate a viral load small enough to give a person with an asymptomatic form of Covid-19 and provide them with a few months’ immunity from the disease. You would have to be desperate to use a live Covid-19 virus as a vaccine - but with gun toting protestors already pushing back against the coronavirus lockdowns in six states and the US economy on a ventilator, by the end of 2020 Donald Trump will be a very desperate man. Healthcare and politics as we know it may be about to change forever as we follow the bat from Wuhan back into hell.