Asia Pacific

Did COVID-19 Originate in China?

The truth about COVID-19 may be different than everyone supposes and requires adjusting our understanding of the world we live in.
Wuhan, origin of COVID-19, COVID-19 originate China, coronavirus origin, coronavirus originate Wuhan, Dr Tom Jefferson, Wuhan news, coronavirus news, COVID-19 news, Peter Isackson

Shanghai, China in January 2020. © Robert Way / Shutterstock

July 07, 2020 09:31 EDT

For months, as the COVID-19 disease was spreading and hundreds of thousands of people were dying across the world, accusations amplified by the media flew across borders in a global blame game. They raised three great destabilizing questions: Which nation was responsible for bringing COVID-19 into the world? What devious motive was behind it? And which political leaders hid or manipulated the truth for the longest period of time?

As the tone mounted and as everyone at least agreed that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, the calls for retaliation and reparation began, notably led by Republican legislators in the US. In his latest attempt to save his bid for reelection, US President Donald Trump has doubled down on his xenophobic contention that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a Chinese weapon of mass destruction. He taunts his crowds with an antiphonal evocation of a litany of epithets including “Wuhan Flu” and “Kung Flu” with the intention of demonizing China and casting himself as a victim of the wily Orientals.

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Now comes news from an epidemiologist at Oxford University that may bring down the entire edifice of accusations and calls for reparation. Wuhan, it turns out, may not be the exclusive birthplace of COVID-19. The virus comes from another place, which the professor designates with scientific precision simply as “here.” As reported by The Daily Telegraph, Dr. Tom Jefferson (not to be confused with the famous but currently contested American slaveowner) described it in these terms: “I think the virus was already here, here meaning everywhere.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Everywhere. The opposite of elsewhere.

Contextual Note

According to Jefferson, a senior associate tutor at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at the University of Oxford, “there is growing evidence that the virus was elsewhere before it emerged in Asia.” Some of the places cited as “elsewhere” were Spain in March 2019, Milan and Turin in December, Brazil in November and the Falkland Islands in early February 2020. He believes it may be something that has been observed before: “a dormant virus that has been activated by environmental conditions.”

COVID-19 has all the makings of a metaphysical mystery. It is unlike the much more rational bubonic plague that ravaged Europe for centuries and spawned theories of divine punishment before being reduced to a reassuring story of rats and fleabites. Despite all our progress in medical science and the massive research engaged since the COVID-19 outbreak began, no one is really sure that the much-maligned cave bats of southern China have effectively replaced the Black Death’s famous rats. Experts are still speculating on how the virus is transmitted or why many people are contaminated but suffer no symptoms.

Every government in the world seems to have misjudged the threat that the coronavirus represented or misapplied the uncertain science provided by their experts. There were both good and bad reasons for doing so. As the scale and the unpredictability of the virus grew, hopes of eliminating COVID-19 and returning to what most people think of as “normal life” rose and fell like the stock market itself. But unlike the stock market, which has produced its own mystery by continuing to prosper as the economy tanks, hopes of defeating the disease have been battered beyond recognition.

Living and breathing human beings — in contrast with the numbers in the stock market — don’t just rise or fall. They also die or go broke. The stock market’s current success is a measure of its irrelevance to human life in general, but the day it wakes up to discover that its figures, based on pure speculation, actually do have some kind of tenuous link with an economy that currently undergoing the crippling effects of the virus, we may see a financial pandemonium to rival the human disarray caused by the pandemic.

Jefferson tells us there is “growing evidence” that COVID-19 has been present for some time in various places and only emerged by chance in China. If confirmed, will this change the discourse of political leaders with regard to the coronavirus? Are they capable of understanding what this might mean?

The fact that it is “here” and that “here” is “everywhere” may sound more like something out of Augustinian metaphysics or quantum entanglement than epidemiology. If this thesis is borne out, Jefferson will have put his finger on the kind of mystery that upsets many rational thinkers because it prevents them from applying their reassuring linear logic that consists of explaining away everything through a simple chain of cause and effect. In a philosophical sense, here is indeed everywhere.

Jefferson’s theory posits that even novel viruses “are always here and something ignites them, maybe human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should be looking for.” Not only is here everywhere, but “now” is “always.” This may sound metaphysical, but his approach is essentially ecological. Jefferson explains that epidemiological science itself should seek out a new direction. “We need to start researching the ecology of the virus, understanding how it originates and mutates,” he says. He complains that “the ecology of these viruses … has been grossly understudied.”

Many potentially contradictory things have their place in an environment that nevertheless allows them to survive without conflict. When conditions change radically, they emerge as a threat. The principle is even similar to St. Augustine’s example of fire, which he cited to explain the problem of evil: “What [is] more useful than fire for warming, restoring, cooking, though nothing is more destructive than fire burning and consuming?”

The novel coronavirus may not be so novel after all. It may be a permanent feature of the environment. It may even have served an unknown purpose until a change in the environment turned it into a threat.

Historical Note

If Dr. Tom Jefferson’s thesis is true, it points to a major irony of history. The last 30 or 40 years have been dominated by the idea of globalization and the corresponding organizational effort attached to it in the name of optimizing the way the economy works. With the rise of Donald Trump’s nationalism in the US and the victory of Brexit in the 2016 British referendum, globalization was already being contested. People were beginning to clamor for a shift in historical trends. In typical binary logic, they reasoned that if globalization causes economic suffering by taking away manufacturing jobs and augmenting inequality, the answer is a return to purely national logic, which is to say, political nationalism.

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When COVID-19 erupted visibly in Wuhan at the beginning of the year, it seemed logical to many people to blame a globalized economic culture that multiplied the occasions for travel and communication of important messages, cultural memes and contagious diseases. More specifically, it provided the opportunity to blame China itself.

Jefferson’s findings would indicate that globalization works in a different, subtler way. Even if the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, which for most people is a distant place they can call “there,” it may already have been equally present in everyone’s “here.” Like the air we breathe, which knows no national borders, its origin was “everywhere” but its emergence happened “somewhere.”

This helps to explain one of the notable mysteries of this pandemic: that a majority of people who test positive have no symptoms. Such asymptomatic carriers may simply be “normal” in the sense that their metabolism remains in some sort of inexplicable ecological balance that reflects the usual state of coexistence between humanity and the virus.

What Jefferson is describing is a different, more organic form of globalization that has nothing to do with political structures and human institutions but does have something to do with the way humans interact with the natural world. If that is true, the lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic would not be to seek less globalization and more nationalism, as some recommend, but rather to try to understand humanity’s global relationship with the natural world in the quest to achieve a reasonably stable ecological balance.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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