Coronavirus Started in China, but Europe Became the Hub for Its Global Spread

Travel from Europe accounts for Covid-19 index cases in at least 93 countries, with African nations being the most affected.

A passenger aircraft, operated by Alitalia-Societa Aerea Italiana SpA, takes off from Linate airport in Milan, Italy, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. As the number of people infected by the coronavirus in Italy rises above 300 -- mostly in the rich, industrial north -- restrictions imposed to stem its spread are threatening deeper economic woes. Photographer: Gianmarco Maraviglia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A passenger aircraft takes off from Linate airport in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 26, 2020. Photo: Gianmarco Maraviglia/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When the coronavirus began to spread, Mongolia took sensible precautions. It halted border crossings from China, with which it shares a 2,877-mile border. Mongolia also imposed travel bans on people from South Korea and Japan, the other epicenters of the pandemic at the time. Yet the virus nonetheless found its way to Mongolia, where the first infected person — known as the “index case” — was a Frenchman who had come to the country from France via Moscow.

The story is the same for many other countries that became part of the pandemic due to infected people carrying it from Europe. South Africa’s first coronavirus cases had gone to northern Italy for a skiing trip. South America’s first case was a Brazilian who had traveled to Italy’s Lombardy region, and Bangladesh’s first cases were Bangladeshis who had also come from Italy. Panama’s index case was imported from Spain, and Nigeria’s first experience with coronavirus was an Italian business traveler. Jordan’s was imported from Italy.

As Covid-19 cripples the U.S. and ravages many countries in the world, politicians are battling to craft a narrative of who is to blame for its damage. The virus started in China, of course, but narratives of how it went from epidemic to global pandemic often leave out a crucial element: the role of Europe.

A woman covers her mouth as Spanish UME (Emergency Army Unit) soldiers disinfect the terminal to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the airport of Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, March 19, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

A woman covers her mouth as Spanish UME, or Emergency Army Unit, soldiers disinfect the terminal at the airport in Barcelona, Spain, on March 19, 2020.

Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP

European countries have been hit much harder than Asian nations and have spread the virus significantly more than other regions. The Intercept went through news reports of Covid-19 index cases across the world, and the results were startling. Travel from and within Europe preceded the first coronavirus cases in at least 93 countries across all five continents, accounting for more than half of the world’s index cases. Travel from Italy alone preceded index cases in at least 46 countries, compared to 27 countries associated with travel from China.

One of the reasons European travel facilitated the spread of the coronavirus was because those countries were late to close air links. Italy closed one terminal of Milan’s main airport on March 16, when the northern region of Lombardy already had 3,760 cases in a population of 10 million people. By contrast, China had shut down flights out of Hubei province on January 23, when there were 500 reported cases worldwide and 17 deaths in Hubei among a population of 58 million. London’s Heathrow and Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airports are still open as cases soar in both of those cities, while Spain’s air operators only closed major terminals in Madrid and Barcelona when air traffic had ground to a halt anyway.

The media has paid relatively little attention to the role of Europe as an accelerator of the virus’s spread. A popular New York Times data graphic, for example, tracks the spread of the virus but stops mapping the spread when China is no longer its main exporter. Other reports target China more bluntly, like a widely shared article in The Atlantic that stated, “Is this a time for blame? Yes, it is.”

To an extent, this makes sense: The outbreak began in Wuhan, China’s ninth most populous city, and Chinese authorities covered up its dangerous spread early on. Travel from China infected major countries like South Korea, Italy, Russia, Germany, India, and the U.S.

But as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were stabilizing their coronavirus rates through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and strict lockdown measures, infections in European countries were shooting up. Despite witnessing the devastation in China, and the rapid response put in place by its neighbors, European countries were flatfooted as the virus spread rapidly from Milan, Paris, and London to countries in Africa, Latin America, and its European neighbors.

“Did European countries ask for advice from Asian ones? I don’t think so,” said Dr. François Dabis, director of the Agency for Research on AIDS and Hepatitis in Bordeaux, France. “We saw the reactions of Asian countries, but at the time we didn’t think they would be a model because we didn’t believe we would have the same epidemic.” European public health officials were initially modeling their responses to coronavirus after the 2003 SARS epidemic, which was more locally contained in Asia, he added.

Many East Asian countries built up their screening and contact tracing capacity after SARS, though South Korea had learned its key lessons from its experience with the MERS outbreak in 2015, when testing production was delayed by regulations. Due to that, South Korea was ready to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak with fast and massive testing. “After 2015, they changed the law to allow, in the event of a public health crisis or infectious disease outbreak, that they could more much more rapidly approve and deploy new diagnostic tests,” using the World Health Organization’s test as a model, said Dr. Claire Standley, researcher at Georgetown University’s Department of International Health. The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, only allowed a specific Centers for Disease Control and Prevention test in the first few weeks, drastically damaging the U.S.’s ability to contain the pandemic.

Italy, France, Spain, and the U.K. all failed to scale up testing as well. “We had a lack of logistical capacity to test, and in France we are still suffering because from this,” Dabis explained. Within Europe, only Germany has the industrial capacity to mass-produce Covid-19 tests on short notice, he said, adding that France “didn’t source tests from Asia in large quantities.”

Municipal workers wearing full protective gear as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 Coronavirus carries a sprayer while disinfecting a market in the popular Medina neighbourhood of Dakar on March 22, 2020. - The Senegalese government wanted to be firm on Saturday in the fight against the new coronavirus, ruling out "all tolerance" in the face of violators of established rules, including the ban on assemblies, in a country which has reached nearly 60 confirmed cases. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

A municipal worker in full protective gear disinfects a market in the popular Medina neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal, on March 22, 2020.

Photo: John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

The result was considerable: Europe turned into a petri dish and travel from there impacted the world, with its most damaging effect in Africa and Latin America. “The colonial legacy lives in viral movements. I wasn’t surprised that Belgian travel preceded DRC’s first known case,” said Dr. Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The ‘knowing’ is also a colonial symptom. There may have very well been an earlier case, but we know about the traveler. Their sickness registers.” Senegal’s first case, for example, was imported from France, while the Gambia’s was the U.K., Angola’s was from Portgual, and Suriname’s was from the Netherlands. On Facebook and in WhatsApp groups, some commentators have used the term “coronized,” a play off “colonized,” to describe this phenomenon.

In Africa in particular, the spread of Covid-19 hit the political class first because of their frequent travel abroad. A single event in London attended by Prince Charles and Prince Albert II of Monaco, for example, created possible clusters in at least two African countries. Even though Mozambique’s index case was officially confirmed on March 20, some journalists have speculated that it actually could have been Eneas Comich, the mayor of Maputo, the southern African nation’s capital. Comich was likely infected when attending a WaterAid event on March 10 in London, where he sat at the same table as Prince Charles and Prince Albert, both of whom tested positive for Covid-19 shortly thereafter. Prince Charles is pictured coughing into his hand at the event.

Burkina Faso’s water and sanitation minister, Niouga Ambroise Ouédraogo, attended the meeting as well and is suspected of having contracted the virus there too. He is one of seven infected ministers in Burkina Faso’s cabinet, severely hampering the government as it struggles to contain a rapidly growing outbreak there.

The pandemic’s epicenter has now moved to the U.S. and is likely to remain a devastating global problem for months and even years to come. “There’s going to need to be a global accountability for how we manage pandemics,” said Standley. “I don’t think that it’s helpful at this point in time to use the pandemic to advance nationalistic discourses, or to point fingers and assign blame. But I think that there are opportunities to hold our systems and our governance accountable in terms of how they could have responded better.”

Dabis said that in the absence of a coherent strategy from WHO and the United Nations, Europeans had placed faith in their own institutions, but that faith was let down. “We thought maybe the political organizations that have cropped up over the past few years — the G7, the G20, the European Commission — could have brought solutions, but we see clearly they haven’t had a single one,” he said. “Every country does what it wants, when it wants. There is no global vision.”

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