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New study gives China opportunity to blame Brazil for pandemic

. Jul 08, 2020
china brazil coronavirus study Illustration: André Chiavassa/TBR

There has been much conjecture and conspiratorial theorizing about the origin of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which kicked off the Covid-19 pandemic that has so far claimed over half a million lives. The first official and confirmed case of human infection by the novel coronavirus was recorded by municipal health authorities in Wuhan (Central China) on December 31, 2019, and ever since scientists have been trying to identify the path of the virus until its first detection.

One spokesman from the Chinese foreign ministry tweeted a conspiracy theory according to which the virus was brought to the country by 300 athletes from the U.S. Army, in Wuhan for the 7th Military World Games in October 2019. Meanwhile, China’s mainstream media is giving credence to a preliminary study in Brazil, suggesting the virus may have been present in the country in late November of last year.

A group of Brazilian scientists found traces of Sars-CoV-2 in samples of human sewage collected in the country on November 27. If confirmed, this would mean that the virus was present in Brazil more than three months before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic.

</p> <h2>China seizing the opportunity</h2> <p>This preliminary discovery was quickly spread by several Chinese news outlets. The South China Morning Post wrote that the study “adds to suggestions that the virus spread undetected before the alarm was first raised in China in late December.”&nbsp;</p> <p>News agency CGTN does not mention that the paper still is in the preprint stage, meaning that it has yet to be formally peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal. Preprint studies have become more and more widespread in recent months, due to the urgency for scientific discoveries related to Sars-CoV-2.</p> <p>The story was also picked up by <a href="http://www.china.org.cn/world/Off_the_Wire/2020-07/03/content_76234870.htm">China.org.cn</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/globaltimesnews/status/1278865782483480576?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1278865782483480576%7Ctwgr%5E&amp;ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.republicworld.com%2Fworld-news%2Frest-of-the-world-news%2Fvirus-was-circulating-chinese-mouthpiece-blames-brazil-for-coronavi.html">Global Times</a>, and <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-07/03/c_139186880.htm">Xinhua.net</a>.</p> <p>Since the beginning of the pandemic, CGTN has published a number of stories on studies differing from commonly held narratives about the spread of the virus. In a <a href="https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-05-19/Facts-Tell-Who-is-patient-zero-of-coronavirus--QD1tcQ46bu/index.html">video about patient zero</a>, the site stresses that the first confirmed case of Covid-19 does not necessarily mean the person was the first case of the disease.</p> <p>An international blame game is brewing regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Chinese government coming in for heavy criticism worldwide for allegations it had been negligent in containing the virus&#8217; spread in December and early January.</p> <p>This <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/07/brazil-wasting-golden-opportunity-in-us-china-feud/">criticism of China</a> has also overstepped into the realms of xenophobia in many places, including Brazil. Members of the Brazilian government and close allies of President Jair Bolsonaro blamed the Asian country for the pandemic and insisted on calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”&nbsp;</p> <p>This <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/03/19/why-picking-a-fight-with-china-is-a-very-bad-idea/">anti-China stance</a>, following suit with U.S. President Donald Trump, has led to several warnings from the Chinese embassy to Brazilian authorities. In March, one of the president’s sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, tweeted that “China is to blame.” The official representative of China in Brazil replied, demanding a retraction. “His words are extremely irresponsible and sound familiar. They are an imitation of his dear friends. Upon returning from Miami [where the Bolsonaro delegation met with Mr. Trump], he, unfortunately, contracted a mental virus, which is infecting the friendship among our peoples.”</p> <h2>The paper placing the coronavirus in Brazil back in November</h2> <p>If confirmed, the trace of Sars-CoV-2 in Brazil would be the virus&#8217; first recorded appearance in the Americas and would serve as evidence that the virus was circulating in other places before the first notified case in China. However, the researchers who found traces of the novel coronavirus in Brazilian sewage samples say it doesn’t mean Sars-CoV originated in the country.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to researcher Gislaine Fongaro, similar investigations have found traces of the virus in <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53106444">Italy in December</a>. Another recent paper indicates that the virus has been circulating in Wuhan <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2020/06/26/the-coronavirus-was-detected-in-sewage-in-march-of-2019-far-from-wuhan-china/">since March 2019</a>, nine months before the first confirmed case. The sewage material shows the virus has infected people before, but the hypothesis is that those patients had been asymptomatic or been treated as ordinary pneumonia cases.</p> <p>“We only found out about this pathogen in December. Before that, the novel coronavirus was not sought in examinations because it was not known that it existed. Diagnosis is linked to knowing the causative agent,&#8221; said Ms. Fongaro in a press conference last Friday.</p> <p>The samples came from the sewage system of Florianópolis, the capital of southern Brazilian state Santa Catarina. The group of virologists, protozoologists, molecular biologists, and bioinformaticians analyzed the material collected from October to March. The first occurrence was identified on November 27.&nbsp;</p> <p>The samples were tested using the RT-PCR method, which can find even the smallest traces of a given substance. The samples were available as they had been collected previously for other studies.</p> <p>The researchers emphasize that the quantity found in November is small compared to more recent samples. This would be explained by the fact that sewage represents a snapshot of a specific region, and the low level of Sars-CoV-2 suggests the virus was only present in a very small part of the population. Researchers found the virus in much higher quantities in subsequent samples, as Covid-19 spread around the population.</p> <p>Ms. Fongaro points out that the research is just one step in the journey to trace the route of the virus up to the first signs of an epidemic in Wuhan. She believes that retroactive sewage samples can be a valuable source of information worldwide. “It is an excellent time for us to think about how the population’s sewage is useful for sentinel programs. Long before clinical cases appeared, the virus was circulating.”

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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