Less Than Patient Zero

We’ve been fairly quiet about COVID here, largely because any reporting is quickly over taken by events. Scientific advice has remained fairly consistent, but how that is applied nationally and the impact of rising rates of infection is hugely variable.

Equally variable is the life story of the virus – where it came from, when it started and how many it has infected and killed.

The ‘where it came from’ question is to open a pandora’s box of conspiracy theories. Russia and China are expounding the belief that it came from the West, either USAMRIID scientists on an away-day to Wuhan or the same Porton Down team that spread Novichok on door handles in Salisbury. Chinese media outlets are also suggesting, in a bizarre twist of facts, that the virus originated in Italy and spread around the world from there (https://china.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202003/21/WS5e760af8a3107bb6b57a8016.html).

Presumably the percentage of people that believe these lies is exactly the same amount that believe in Chemtrails or that King Arthur is about to spring from his 2,000 year old sleep to save us from peril. Personally I can’t help but feel that every time President Trump announces Covid as ‘the Chinese virus’ the Chinese double down on their misinformation. This petty back and fore reduces the chance of being able to ascertain how the virus appeared in Wuhan/Hubei. It is a fair guess that the global spread of misinformation will match the global spread of the virus, with countries constructing narratives that implicate previous colonial rulers or other handy political targets.

The ‘when it started’ piece seemed to be fairly certain, with the WHO tracking back the patient to December 8, which meant they were likely to have contracted it up to two weeks prior to this. Yet recent reports in the South China Morning Post (https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3074991/coronavirus-chinas-first-confirmed-covid-19-case-traced-back), throw doubt on this and quoting undisclosed government sources track the start of the infection back to November 17. Until the origin date can be identified there is no chance of determining who is ‘Patient Zero,’ meaning that there is little chance of ascertaining the origin of the virus.

Infection and morbidity rate is also up for grabs. China revised their figures in the middle of February (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51482994) announcing that they had changed the way they counted cases. It is hard to believe that the current rate is much better! The chances of China being transparent on this is exactly nil. Meanwhile other nations, such as the UK and US, that have very low levels of testing for the disease are also missing those that had a mild case, as there is no wide spread governmental system. I would suggest that the true numbers of infected across the world will never be known, and are likely to be at least one order of magnitude more than the official figures. Whether this under reporting due to ignorance/incompetence (US/UK) or due to government policy (China) in addition to ignorance and incompetence (https://www.axios.com/timeline-the-early-days-of-chinas-coronavirus-outbreak-and-cover-up-ee65211a-afb6-4641-97b8-353718a5faab.html&stream=world) can only be guessed at.  

Top of the list for ‘Fictions the Chinese want us to believe’ is the one that suggests that they are on top of the outbreak and can resume business as usual. Not only does it suggest that China is some Wunderkind of public health, but also that it is ready to resume exporting to the world, as any further delays would have a serious impact on its economy and the government of President Xi. China is now churning out stories about how well it has flattened the curve, but what it has really done is remove people from care https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2020/03/b09b868ec468-breaking-news-wuhan-doctor-blows-whistle-on-manipulation-of-virus-patient-numbers.html. Chasing the Covid-Booker Prize for Fiction are Russia and India, which are claiming under 450 cases at time of writing, the exact number will be far, far higher but neither government sees it in their interest to offer a more plausible narrative.

Yet China, Russia and India are not alone in this, the US also seems to be steering a somewhat erratic course to mission success. While a lot of work is being done, you can see the exasperation in the faces of the Trump team when they try and dissuade him in his live briefings that chloroquine ‘might work.’

President Trump: “And I think it’s going to be very exciting.  I think it could be a game changer and maybe not.  And maybe not.  But I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer.  Very powerful.  They’re very powerful… There are a lot of reasons that I have to believe — again, Dr. Hahn is the expert, but a lot of reasons that I would have to think that it could have a very positive effect or a positive effect.  Maybe not very, but maybe — maybe positive.  I think it’s, to me, very, very exciting.”

Dr Hahn: “The President is right.  With an off-the-shelf drug, we do have a lot of information about the side effects of the drug.  So that really helps, in terms of expediting.  But — but I want to assure you that we’re working as quickly as we can.  I don’t want to speculate about a timeline at this point.” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-briefing-6/ ).

Putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem to be the right time to engage in his traditional tropes of favouring some journalists and not others, his briefings ramble and lack the authority and compassion of other world leaders, eg. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong (

). Hopefully the various scientific professionals in the Trump team can side line pet projects and stay on target, otherwise the US approach is going to be sub optimal.

The UK equally looks like a country more worried about a financial meltdown than an epidemiological one. The shortage of ventilators and PPE makes it look like SARS, MERS, H1N1 and even Ebola never happened. The NHS has been at over capacity for 12 years of austerity, and it is no surprise that this is the straw that broke the doctors back. I cannot imagine that the Post-Covid government will do anything than throw plaudits at brave health professionals rather than learning anything from the experience.

A favourite tea party game of the pandemic flu professionals has been trying to estimate how many died from the 1918/19 variant, with estimates ranging from 40-100m people. Poor census information and recording of death made their job close to impossible and there is little consensus. Not equating parity between Covid and ‘Spanish flu’ but it seems that there will be a similar parlour game for Covid19, which despite improved records suffers from similar opacity.   

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