Study provides evidence that the outbreak of the COVID epidemic originated in a food market in Wuhan, says a researcher from Utah State

This January. 31, 2021 photo A security guard waves to reporters to clear the way after a convoy carrying a World Health Organization team entered the Huanan Seafood Market. A new study has identified the Huanan Food Market in Wuhan, China, as the epicenter of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in late 2019, according to a study co-authored by a University of Utah researcher. (Ng Han Guan, Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — New research shows that the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, served as the epicenter of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in late 2019, despite earlier beliefs that the pandemic began elsewhere.

“This paper … really makes it clear that this virus first appeared in the area surrounding the Huanan market. In the Huanan market, the virus originated from the part of the market that sold live animals,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine. said on Tuesday.

Goldstein served as an author on the international study published Tuesday in the journal Science.

The first reports said that the virus was released from the market, but later it was speculated that it escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Goldstein and other researchers found that two versions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are geographically linked to the market. Until now, only one option was considered related to the market.

Scientists believe a total of eight variants have been introduced into humans on the market, but only two – called variants A and B – have caused human infection.

According to Goldstein, the study refutes the idea that the virus came from a Chinese laboratory. According to Goldstein, in December 2019, the virus spread only in the area surrounding the market, which was “quite a distance” from the suspected source, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“So the idea that the virus was introduced into a market that had a quiet outbreak in Wuhan and then a super outbreak — we can rule out that possibility,” he said.

Animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 were sold in the Wuhan market, including “in November 2019, the companion paper reported the first human infection,” Goldstein said.

These animals included raccoon dogs, badgers, rabbits, hares and foxes, all of which could be infected. But researchers believe these animals served as intermediate hosts for the virus and picked it up from infected bats.

“Humans don’t come into particularly intense contact with bats. We come into much stronger contact with these potential intermediaries in places like live animal markets,” he said.

But little is known about how bats infect other animals or how the virus “upstreams” the virus. More research is needed to understand how to limit the ability of viruses to transfer between species.

The researchers were able to reconstruct the market using data from the China report, data from the World Health Organization mission and market business registries. According to Goldstein, they identified 10 to 15 stalls inside the market selling live animals.

Five virus-positive environmental samples from one stall were collected from a market chamber, products associated with the sale of live animals, including cages, carts and drainage nets. Those samples were concentrated in the southwest corner of the market, and the closer a sample was to the live animal shed, the more likely it was to test positive for the virus, Goldstein said.

The findings in the paper and a companion study provide “high confidence” that the first human infections occurred in animal markets, Goldstein said, adding that the events leading up to the market are not yet understood.

Scientists don’t know if there have been early infections in cattle dealers or people working on livestock farms. According to Goldstein, these indicators could lead to information about what types of animal trade regulations might reduce the risk of future animal virus transmission to humans.

“What steps can be taken … to reduce further spread, I would first ask experts in public health and animal ecology, the live animal trade, the live animal trade around the world, especially in China and Southeast Asia, to do these things to set some measures,” he said.

Some potential solutions include monitoring farm animals and farm workers who may be exposed to the virus; removing infected animals from the supply chain; and, according to Goldstein, any form of trade in live animals in cities.

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Ashley Imlay covers public policy and breaking news for KSL.com. A lifelong resident of Utah, Ashley worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and is a graduate of Dixie State University.

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