W.H.O. Investigator: Wuhan Market Sold Wildlife from Areas Infested by Virus-Carrying Bats

A seafood vendor (R) wearing a face mask talks to a customer at a wet market in Shanghai on February 13, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Nairobi-based Vietnamese biologist Hung Nguyen-Viet, a food safety expert who was among the ten scientists sent by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to visit Wuhan, China, in late January, said Monday that he fears wildlife products sold at the now-infamous Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan might have come from areas with large populations of virus-carrying bats, possibly spreading the coronavirus from animals to humans through an intermediate species.

This was the scenario classified as the most likely origin of the pandemic in W.H.O.’s report on the Wuhan mission, released last week to considerable skepticism from scientists who said Chinese officials withheld too much vital data from the international team. Skeptics also noted there was a remarkable lack of evidence for the animal-transmission theory, even though W.H.O. concluded it was the most probable scenario.

Hung did not comment at length on the data withheld by China, saying the compilation and processing of information from Wuhan is “an evolving process and that is understandable.” He did, however, stress the importance of determining if the virus passed to humans at the Huanan market or a similar venue, and if so, which species was responsible.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted Hung saying the virus might have come from infected bats in certain Southern Chinese provinces and made its way to Wuhan inside animals that bit, or were bitten, by the bats:

Nguyen-Viet said that the data gathered by Chinese researchers and analyzed by the two sides had provided a potentially critical clue. Some of the goods sold in Huanan had come from southern Chinese provinces that are known to harbor bats that carry viruses which are closely related to the one that causes Covid-19 [coronavirus].

“We didn’t have this kind of information before we came to China …. and this shows a potential pathway [for the virus] from wildlife farms in southern China to Wuhan,” he said.

“But the full picture was not there, so that’s why the recommendation is really to understand how this wildlife was farmed, how people were exposed to the wildlife and also to explore if these animals are exposed to bats or other wild animals — because that type of interaction might play a role in the emergence of the Sars-CoV-2 virus,” he said.

As the SCMP noted, independent researchers have “expressed surprise” that Chinese scientists have not already followed this clue trail and thoroughly investigated the wildlife farms referenced by Hung. These researchers have also noted that only a relatively small portion of known early coronavirus cases trace back to the Huanan market, but some were known to have patronized similar markets in the city.

The Chinese themselves have cast doubt upon whether the Huanan market was the epicenter of the outbreak, while the leader of the visiting W.H.O. team, Peter Ben Embarek, pointed out there “was also spread among individuals that were not linked to the market.” 

Furthermore, the W.H.O. report noted that most of the earliest known coronavirus cases from December 2019 had no apparent connections to Huanan. The huge, crowded, unsanitary, poorly ventilated market has long appeared to researchers as a likely scene for “massive transmission,” a “superspreader” site where the outbreak grew tremendously, but much of the data provided by the Chinese government argues against the market as the location of the initial human infection.

No animal product sold at the Huanan market has yet tested positive for Chinese coronavirus, a fact the Chinese are pointing to as evidence for their theory that the coronavirus originated somewhere outside of Wuhan, and possibly outside of China, and was shipped to the market in contaminated frozen food.

W.H.O.’s representative to Russia, Melita Vujnovic, said on Monday that while several animal species have proven capable of contracting the coronavirus from infected humans — including minks, dogs, and cats — no “intermediate host” that could have spread the virus from animals to humans has yet been identified.


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