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A year after virus appeared, Wuhan tells China’s pandemic story

The first known case of infection from the novel coronavirus was recorded one year ago, in China’s Hubei province. The city of Wuhan was infamous the world over as the original virus epicenter, seeing more than half of China’s reported cases and deaths. Now, reminders of COVID-19 in Wuhan reflect the story the Chinese government wants to tell. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One year ago today, the first known case of coronavirus infection was recorded in China's Hubei province, home to Wuhan, now known the world over as the original virus epicenter.

    Special correspondent Patrick Fok went to Wuhan to try and piece together parts of the puzzle and see how China is shaping the story of what happened there.

  • Patrick Fok:

    It's hard to imagine this place was once on the front line of China's coronavirus outbreak. Jinyintan Hospital, in the north of Wuhan, treated some of the world's first COVID-19 patients nearly a year ago.

    Few cars or even people come in and out of the premises now. In the early days of the outbreak, wards here were bursting. Just a short walk around the corner from the hospital, authorities converted this Expo Center into a shelter to treat the sick.

    Wuhan was the hardest-hit place in China, accounting for more than half of all the country's cases and the bulk of its officially reported roughly 4,500 deaths. The center is now housing an exhibition commemorating China's battle against the virus.

  • Man (through translator):

    I think pride belongs to every one of us Chinese, because we have successfully fought against the coronavirus under the call of the party, and the country, and actively fought against it under the leadership of the government.

  • Patrick Fok:

    This is an audiovisual journey that details Chinese Communist Party-led efforts against COVID-19, complete with a timeline of events, according to Chinese authorities, of how they unfolded.

    There's a tribute, also, to medics who died fighting the outbreak, including Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower doctor silenced by officials for trying to warn the world about the disease and whose death sparked outrage.

    Anger over his fate and a perceived cover-up in the early days of the crisis has been turned into a story of sacrifice by a national hero. It's the story of Wuhan the government wants to tell.

    This behind me is what's left of the Huanan wet market, what many people believe to be the source, the original source, of COVID-19. And there are no businesses operating inside anymore, and many of the other businesses around the outside, including eateries in particular, remain shuttered as well.

    Filming here is not welcome. That's despite there being little to see. People used to sell everything from live animals to seafood at this market. There's barely any sign now that it ever even existed.

    Scientists believe the virus may have originated in bats, and that it was passed on to humans via another animal species. But there are doubts about whether this is where the outbreak began. Although many early cases were linked to the market, no animal here was identified as a source of infection.

    Lai Yun owns a Japanese restaurant in Wuhan. He lives close to the market, and, before the outbreak, used to buy some of his supplies there.

  • Lai Yun (through translator):

    Hubei is not a province that likes to eat wild animals. There is no such thing as bats, as mentioned on the Internet, certainly not.

  • Patrick Fok:

    If true, that would seem to rule out the possibility of any jump from bats, at least, in Huanan market. Chinese scientists have also backed away from assertions they made previously that the market may have been the source of the virus.

    Meanwhile, Beijing's resisted global pressure to allow outsiders access to get to the bottom of its origin. In May, months after the first case and the virus exploded worldwide, President Xi Jinping endorsed a World Health Organization-led investigation. Reports say a two-person team from the WHO came in July.

    But they never went to Wuhan during the entire three-week trip. To date, there's still been no independent probe on the origins of COVID-19 conducted from China's outbreak epicenter.

    Dr. Bruce Gellin Is President Of Global Immunization At The Sabin Vaccine Institute and a regular consultant to the WHO. He says it's now too late.

  • Bruce Gellin:

    Looking at something six months later, it may be hard to reconstruct it. So, these kinds of investigations need to be happening as quickly as possible, getting the teams in there that know how to do these as quickly as possible to understand what's happening and to unveil any evidence that may be there.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The lack of access given to outsiders has raised doubt over China's commitment to identifying the source of the virus. It's also helped fuel alternative theories, including the possibility that it might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had been conducting research on coronaviruses.

    There's no known evidence to suggest that happened.

    Professor Ivan Hung is the chief of Hong Kong University's infectious diseases division. He says he thinks the criticism of China is unfair.

  • Ivan Hung:

    The thing that you can probably comment on is the local government in Wuhan, then, probably they have not been very responsive. And, of course, they probably have cleaned up the market before they are able to have any proper investigation being done.

  • Patrick Fok:

    In a rush to curb the spread of the virus, it's understandable, experts say, that local officials might have rushed to disinfect Huanan market, instead of preserving evidence.

    Still, China could do much more to shake off accusations of a lack of transparency, and there are calls for the WHO to be given greater powers to obtain information.

  • Bruce Gellin:

    They are interfacing with their member states. And they have to abide by what the member states' wishes are. That's obviously a problem if the member state wishes not to have WHO tell others about that information.

    And I think we need to take a hard look at those to make sure the international health regulations which are put in place for things like this, so we have global health security, are they able to do what we need them to do?

  • Patrick Fok:

    Unless that's addressed, the world may be no better off at defending itself against pandemics in the future.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Wuhan.

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