My colleagues and I published an extensive study of the earliest events in the COVID-19 pandemic last month in the journal Science.
Together, these documents present a coherent evidentiary picture of what happened in Wuhan in the latter part of 2019.
The take home message is that the COVID pandemic probably started where the first cases were found – the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
At the same time, it gives the impression that the virus escaped from the laboratory.
Huanan Market was the epicenter of the pandemic
An analysis of the geographic locations of the earliest known cases of COVID through December 2019 revealed strong clusters around the Huanan market. This was true not only for people who worked or visited the market, but also for people who had nothing to do with it.
Although there are many missing cases, there is no evidence of widespread sampling: the first COVID cases were not detected because they were linked to the Huanan market.
Huanan Market was the epicenter of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that originated there spread rapidly to other locations in Wuhan in early 2020, and then to other countries around the world.
Huanan Market is an indoor area the size of two football fields. The word “seafood” in its name gives a misleading impression about its function. When I visited the market in 2014, a variety of live wild animals were being sold, including raccoon dogs and muskrats.
At that time, I suggested to my Chinese colleagues that these market animals should be tested for the virus. Instead, they set up a virological surveillance study at the nearby Wuhan Central Hospital, which later cared for the earliest COVID patients.
In 2019, wild animals were also sold at Huanan Market. After the Chinese authorities closed the market on January 1, 2020, investigative teams searched surfaces, doorknobs, drains, frozen animals, etc. cleaned.
Most of the samples that later tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were from the southwest corner of the market. The wildlife I saw for sale on my 2014 trip was in the southwest corner.
This creates a simple and plausible way for the virus to jump from animals to humans.
Read more: How do viruses mutate and jump in species? And why are “spills” so common?
SARS-CoV-2 has evolved into a number of lineages, some of which are familiar to us as “security variants” (what we call Delta, Omicron, and others). The first split in the SARS-CoV-2 family tree—between lineages “A” and “B”—occurred early in the pandemic. Both genera have their epicenter in the market and both are found there.
Further analysis suggests that lineages A and B were the products of separate jumps from animals. This simply means that there is a pool of infected animals in the Huanan market, which has fueled multiple exposure events.
Retracing the history of mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence over time showed that lineage B was the first to jump to humans. Then, perhaps a few weeks later, came the A generation.
All these events are believed to have happened in late October 2019. Claims that the virus has spread to date can be dismissed.
Of course, what’s missing is that we still don’t know exactly which animals were involved in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans. Live wild animals were removed from Huanan Market before the investigation team entered, which increased public safety but hindered hunting.
The opportunity to find the owner of live animals has passed. Because the virus can spread rapidly through animal reservoirs, it is overly optimistic to think that it is still circulating among these animals today.
The lack of a clear animal source has been taken as tacit support for counterclaims that SARS-CoV-2 actually “leaked” from a research laboratory – the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Death to the lab leak theory
The laboratory leak theory is based on an unfortunate coincidence: SARS-CoV-2 originated in a city with a laboratory working with bat coronaviruses.
Some of these bat coronaviruses are closely related to SARS-CoV-2. But not close to being direct ancestors.
Unfortunately, the focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology has distracted us from a much more important connection: the direct link between an outbreak of a coronavirus like SARS-CoV-1 (emerged in late 2002) and a living animal. market.
Consider that a virus that leaked out of a lab was first found where you’d expect it to be, if it actually came from a natural animal – vanishingly low. And these possibilities are further reduced because we have to link A and B offspring to the market.
Was the market just the scene of a super-spreading story? Nothing says that. It is not crowded in the bustling and global metropolis of Wuhan. Not even close to being the busiest market or mall in the city.
For the laboratory leak theory to be true, SARS-CoV-2 must have been at the Wuhan Institute of Virology before the outbreak of the pandemic. This convinces me.
But the inconvenient truth is that there is no information about it. There is no evidence of genome sequencing or isolation of the precursor virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Gene sequences are not from databases, scientific publications, annual reports, student theses, social media, or emails.
Even the special services have not found anything. Nothing. Before the pandemic, there was no reason to keep any work on the ancestry of SARS-CoV-2 secret.
To assign the origin of SARS-CoV-2 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is an increasingly implausible “what if?” scenarios. These eventually lead to absurd proposals for covert biological weapons research.
The lab leak theory is an untrue accusation. If the lab’s investigation finds no evidence of a leak, the scientists involved are simply accused of withholding relevant material. If not a conspiracy theory, this is a conspiracy theory.
This provides a convenient vehicle for calling for limitations, if not prohibitions, on the study of the functions by which viruses with more diverse properties can be generated in laboratories. Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 originated this way is a matter of chance
Read more: We want to know where COVID came from. But it is too early to expect miracles
Wounds that will never heal
Much of this discussion has a strong whiff of xenophobia. Chinese scientists’ fervent rejection of anything unpleasant is presented as a lesson.
But in this crucial period, it was these scientists who went to international conferences and welcomed guests. Do we honestly believe they have such a pathological hatred for the consequences of their actions?
The debate over the origins of COVID has opened wounds that will never heal. This has weaponized skepticism and fueled divisive political opinion. Some scientists are blamed for the sins of their governments.
The constant blame game and finger pointing further reduced the chances of finding the origin of the virus. History does not judge this period kindly.
Global cooperation is the cornerstone of effective pandemic prevention, but we risk destroying rather than building relationships. We may be less prepared for a pandemic than we were in 2019. Despite political obstacles and a salivating media, evidence for a natural animal origin for SARS-CoV-2 has mounted over the past two years. Denying it puts us all at risk.