Chinese scientists have concluded that the Wuhan coronavirus did not originate at a wild meat market as the Communist Party had previously asserted, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday.
After weeks of the never-before-seen virus infecting people in the city of 11 million in December, Chinese authorities shut down the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where people were allowed to sell wild animals for meat relatively freely, on January 1. Chinese officials did not make the viral outbreak public until January 20, so doctors at Wuhan hospitals did not properly isolate patients, exposing themselves and sensitive patients to the virus.
Chinese officials insisted that the evidence suggested the new coronavirus jumped from animals to humans at the Huanan market.
“The origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market,” Gao Fu, director of China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a briefing in January, shortly after Beijing announced the outbreak. Gao’s agency claimed as evidence that, of 33 samples taken from early patients that month, 31 were directly traceable back to the part of the market where individuals sold wildlife for eating.
Now, a joint study released Thursday by Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research concludes that “the SARS-CoV-2 source at the … market was imported from elsewhere. … The crowded market then boosted SARS-CoV-2 circulation and spread it to the whole city in early December 2019.”
Caixin Global noted in its report on the study that it has yet to be peer-reviewed, a process many in academia deem necessary to confirm that a study’s findings are legitimate. It detailed how the study traced the origins of the virus in 93 different samples. If the virus had originated at the market, all samples would have been traceable there, but the researchers found otherwise:
Scientists used gene sequencing technology from 93 virus samples and analyzed their haplotypes — groups of genes inherited together from a single parent organism. They found that all the samples with a reported link to the market contained the same haplotype, which they called H1.
But when the scientists dug deeper, they found that three more-ancestral haplotypes — H3, H13 and H38 — appeared in several cases with no reported ties to the market, including one in the southern city of Shenzhen and another in the United States.
That makes it relatively likely that the virus was introduced into the market from outside and began passing between people earlier than previously thought, according to the study.
The study’s estimate for when the virus started spreading is the earliest yet on record, suggesting that the virus may have first begun spreading in Wuhan as early as November 2019. It condemned the Chinese communist regime for failing to alert residents earlier about the outbreak to ensure that people took safety precautions, particularly at crowded events and in hospitals: “If the warning [after the market shut down in January] had attracted more attention, the number of cases both nationally and globally in mid-to-late January would have been reduced.”
“The study concerning whether Huanan market is the only birthplace of SARS-CoV-2 is of great significance for finding its source and determining the intermediate host, so as to control the epidemic and prevent it from spreading again,” the scientists noted.
The latest study joins a much earlier one published in the medical journal The Lancet in January, which also called into question the official claim that the Wuhan wildlife meat market was responsible for the outbreak. That study found a case in which a patient with no links to the market got sick on December 1, one of the first to be identified as a patient. Of the 41 patients studied, 13 did not appear to have any connection to the market.
Huang Chaolin, one of the doctors who wrote the Lancet study, told the Chinese state news agency Xinhua that the new case did not necessarily mean that the virus did not originate at the market, but that there may be more than one source responsible for the spread of the disease.
The Lancet study did not prevent a frenzy to identify the wild meat allegedly responsible for the virus, resulting in a wide variety of theories on whether bats, snakes, mice, badgers, or other pests could have carried the disease. As there is little supervision in what sorts of animals people bring to the market and most are killed live on site, even confirmation of the market as the source of the virus would leave many questions unanswered. Dr. Emily Landon at the University of Chicago explains:
These markets have been known to transmit viruses before. For cultural reasons in the region, people want to see the specific animals they’re buying be slaughtered in front of them, so they know they’re receiving the products they paid for. That means there’s a lot of skinning of dead animals in front of shoppers and, as a result, aerosolizing of all sorts of things, which is why these crowded markets are common places for viruses to jump from animals to people. It’s actually how SARS, another coronavirus, started in 2003.
Adding to the initial confusion were reports on video allegedly showing the Wuhan market, but instead showing locations elsewhere in Southeast Asia that had no known ties to the coronavirus outbreak.
China is nonetheless considering a nationwide ban on wild meat to prevent other potential outbreaks. The Communist Party has yet to address the most recent study potentially absolving the meat market.
At press time, global health officials have identified 79,544 cases of coronavirus worldwide, most in China, Over 2,600 people have died after being diagnosed with the virus. For weeks, Chinese officials reportedly denied patients with clear coronavirus symptoms the testing kit necessary to confirm the outbreak, suggesting the number of cases in the country is much higher than what government officials have documented.