An Italian doctor is now key to China’s efforts to sow confusion over the coronavirus’s origins

The source?
The source?
Image: EUTERS/Manuel Silvestri
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This story has been updated with comment from Giuseppe Remuzzi.

China’s attempts to dissociate itself from the origins of the coronavirus outbreak got an apparent boost thanks to an interview given by an Italian doctor to American media.

The article in question, published by NPR on March 19, examined the impact of the current pandemic on Italy’s health care system. What caught the attention of people in China, however, was the final line in the report, where an Italian medical expert called Giuseppe Remuzzi said, citing doctors: “They remember having seen very strange pneumonia, very severe, particularly in old people in December and even November… This means that the virus was circulating, at least in [the northern region of] Lombardy and before we were aware of this outbreak occurring in China.”

The hashtag “expert says the coronavirus might have started circulating in Italy last November” is now trending on social network Weibo, with over 490 million views so far. The NPR article has also been translated by state media outlets including broadcaster CCTV (link in Chinese). Another interview (link in Chinese) Remuzzi did with Italian broadcaster La7 Attualità, in which he said some doctors told him about seeing strange pneumonia cases as early as October, was also translated and published by state-owned TV station CGTN on Weibo, where the video has been viewed more than 7 million times.

Remuzzi’s comments dovetail with recent attempts by Chinese diplomats and state media to reorient the established narrative that puts Wuhan as the source of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus as early as November. Top officials such as China’s ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai, for example, have suggested that the science is still inconclusive on where the virus originated. Others, such as senior diplomats, have outright propagated conspiracy theories blaming the US military for spreading the disease in China.

Laura Rosenberger, the director of Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy who studies authoritarian interference in democracies, wrote in a tweet that, much like Russian propaganda, China’s strategy now seems to be to “spread multiple, conflicting conspiracy theories, not to convince people of an explanation but to create the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth.”

Italy has also been an important part of China’s propaganda messaging that seeks to position the country as a responsible, collaborative member of the international community, at a time when wealthy countries are floundering in their responses. Diplomats and state media outlets have eagerly promoted actions taken by China to assist Italy, including sending supplies and a medical team there, while the European Union didn’t send anything and the US was swift to impose a travel ban on European countries.

Italy’s “Patient One” is believed to be a 38-year-old male living in a small village in the Lombardy region of the country’s north. According to the New York Times, the patient, who tested positive on Feb. 20, did not have direct contact with anyone from China, though the region conducts a large amount of trade with China, and experts believe that the disease had already been silently spreading in the country for weeks before the first patient was identified.

Many of the comments under the hashtag on Weibo said that they interpreted Remuzzi’s comments as further evidence that the virus originated not in China, but somewhere else. “Judging from the interview, Wuhan is not necessarily the origin of the virus. Instead, it might be that China paid extra attention to the virus and therefore managed to keep it under control,” said a user (link in Chinese).

However, in a response (link in Chinese) published by Chinese online publication Jiemian on March 23, Remuzzi, director of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research, said that he believed the virus was spread to Italy via China through some channels. Citing three essays from journals including the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and Nature Medicine, Remuzzi said that asymptomatic patients could have been traveling both inside and outside China since December or even earlier. He also emphasized that there was no scientific evidence to prove that the strange pneumonia cases he mentioned were definitely caused by the novel coronavirus.

In an emailed statement to Quartz, Remuzzi said that his remarks to NPR were not meant to address the origin of the virus, but only the timing of its outbreak in Italy, which could be earlier than people previously thought.

At the latest count, Italy has 63,927 reported cases of Covid-19 and 6,077 deaths, according to a real-time tracker of of the pandemic by Johns Hopkins University. In comparison, China has reported 3,274 deaths and 81,507 cases.