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Along the way, the mighty Yangtze flows through verdant countryside and cleaves cities in two, including Wuhan, the sprawling commercial capital of Central China’s Hubei Province. Straddling the river, Wuhan is a beautiful city boasting many parks and lakes, including picturesque East Lake. Near East Lake is the Hubei Provincial Museum, which features the most extensive collection of artifacts from China’s Warring States era (475–246 B.C.), including the Marquis Yi of Zeng’s coffin and bronze musical bells from his fifth-century B.C. tomb, one of the rare ones discovered intact.
Eleven bridges cross the Yangtze in Wuhan, 10 of which were built since 1995, a barometer of Wuhan’s explosive growth since the 1990s, a period during which its population more than doubled to 11 million. It’s into this exotic and lively world that I have been parachuted, virtually, of course, to investigate what is unquestionably one of humanity’s most riveting cliffhangers — tracing the origin of the novel coronavirus — a story that continues to unfold.
Many questions linger about the sudden appearance of this mysterious new virus, which tore apart the global economy in mere months after its December 2019 emergence. What was the origin of the virus? How did the disease end up sickening nearly 115 million people in little over a year? What made this virus so virulent, killing more than 2.5 million people worldwide?
The disease’s emergence was muddied from day one by a panoply of labels. First described as “pneumonia with an unknown cause,” scientists quickly determined that a previously unknown betacoronavirus triggered the disease caused by the virus. That led to the virus’ first scientific name: 2019-nCoV, an abbreviation of 2019 novel coronavirus.
When it became apparent that patients were suffering from symptoms much resembling those of SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the fast-moving infection that shook the world in early 2003, the virus was renamed SARS-CoV-2, an abbreviation of “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2.” On Feb. 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 would be called Covid-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019).
So, here’s mystery No. 1. Why was the disease given another name, when in two previous coronavirus cases, SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), the name of the virus and infection were the same — officially: SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV? WHO officials decided that a name change was in order because any association with SARS would create too much “unnecessary fear,” especially in Asia. But the real motivation behind this chaotic naming strategy remains suspect, as you will see in a later chapter. Having set its confusing naming history aside, let’s continue with the investigation of “the incident.”