The week before last the Airlines Confidential podcast was recorded at the Boyd International Aviation Forecast Summit, and Mike Boyd was on briefly and dropped – almost as an aside – “one little thing drops out of a lab in Wuhan..” and aviation is upended. I did a panel with Mike recently (and Henry Harteveldt) that Peter Greenberg hosted and he certainly holds a minority view on Covid-19 and the industry’s trajectory.
But I thought I’d walk through the ‘conspiracy theory’ of the virus, not just because of what SARS-CoV-2 has done to aviation (since it’s done even more to human lives) but also because the conspiracy actually involves the Wuhan airport.
The virus is said to have begun spreading earlier than officially reported. Now-retired United captain Vaughn Cordle reported an uptick in flying sick passengers out of China in December.
European researchers traced the likely beginning to September. It almost had to have started to spread prior to the popular narrative of December because the virus has been remarkably stable. While there have been minor mutations, the most notable being the D->G spike protein mutation that has made the virus more infectious, very little else has shifted. An early virus will tend to mutate more (usually towards being less lethal and more infectious). If the virus had been spreading for some time then it would be more likely to have stabilized to where it is today.
Back on September 18, 2019 the Chinese government ran an ‘exercise’ to contain a novel coronavirus at the Wuhan airport.
We can call this weird if not a bombshell. On Sep 18, 2019, Tianhe Airport in #Wuhan did an "emergency response drill", presuming a passenger had #Coronavirus infection…Why on earth out of over 10K disease, they chose #Coronavirus? #COVID2019 #CoronavirusOutbreak pic.twitter.com/p0Am8BpmWk
— Jennifer Zeng 曾錚 (@jenniferatntd) February 19, 2020
Coronavirus and SARS online searches spiked in China around the same time and on the same date as the Wuhan airport ‘exercise’ the Wuhan CDC initiated an emergency procurement of testing supplies. You can go much further down the rabbit hole.
Wuhan’s CDC identified patients with unidentified flu-like symptoms in early October. The Wuhan wet market is no longer believed to be where the virus cross from animal to humans – it was just the site of the first clearly-identified case cluster.
Yet on January 14 the World Health Organization was still reporting no human transmission of the virus.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
If there was any doubt about WHO carrying water for China, it was disabused by this interview refusing to acknowledge the existence of Taiwan when asked about that country’s success in handling the virus.
oh. my. god. pic.twitter.com/GAwEj5yvT0
— wilfred chan (@wilfredchan) March 28, 2020
I don’t believe there was a Chinese coverup as much as dysfunction at the local government level. When we talk about China obfuscating the spread and danger from COVID-19 in its early stages we commit a fundamental error of treating the country as a single political entity.
Local officials, confronted with novel problems, and lacking in specific direction from above, tend to be extremely risk averse. Negative information tends to get suppressed. That suppression isn’t primarily about keeping China from being embarrassed in front of the world, but rather about protecting the political careers of those minor officials. It wasn’t Xi Jinping who ordered doctors silenced as they speculated about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan.
It was likely that President Xi himself didn’t know the severity of the situation until late January, and his public appearances and statements don’t begin to put it front and center until a week into February. China let the virus become uncontained and they didn’t warn the world, likely because information didn’t immediately reach the top.
Now, my own controversial hypothesis is that a less virulent strain of the virus had been spreading around Southeast Asia for quite some time – probably years. That might tend to explain the success that Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos have had with the virus. Previous infection could explain, for instance, why 90% of Thai cases were asymptomatic. People catching the virus there perhaps had already had a previous version nd mounted an early immune response. Similarly there may be substantial pre-existing cross-immunity from that earlier strain. That doesn’t explain though why this same immunity didn’t spread to China itself, the site of the initial outbreak of the current virus.
A lot of what we first thought we knew about the virus (e.g. that only symptomatic individuals spread the virus) turned out not to be true but that’s not surprising. It’s easier to think of bad things as being by design, by bad actors, because then there’s something you can do about them (just don’t act bad) as opposed to being helpless. But it’s unlikely that the virus began to spread at the Wuhan airport, and it makes complete sense there’d be a drill there because Wuhan is both where much virus research in China happens and a central area where many animal viruses can be found. The U.S. ran exercises, too.