There is a lot of speculation, but few facts, on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. About six weeks ago, even I speculated that the virus might not even have originated in Wuhan. This was based on the fact that at the same time unusual clusters of novel respiratory diseases were popping up in Wuhan, other clusters were also popping up across China and even in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, we have no confirmation that any of these clusters outside Wuhan were caused by the coronavirus. In that blog post, I also wrote about a child in Italy who became sick with a respiratory illness during this time. The child died, but some of his tissues were stored and later proven to be infected with the virus. More recently, Italy also reported on a woman who also died at that time from a respiratory disease. Her stored samples also were positive for the virus. Therefore, we do have proof that COVID-19 was in Italy at the same time it was found in Wuhan. These observations cast some doubt that Wuhan is actually the epicenter of the pandemic.
Of course, these observations are circumstantial and it remains possible that Wuhan indeed is where the virus first infected humans. And the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) labs remain the trendy choice for the origin of the virus, even though there are no data to support that. However, new provocative research just published threw a monkey wrench into the lab origin notion. University of Arizona evolutionary biologist, Michael Worobey, has data very consistent with the virus originating from a different market in Wuhan, the Uhanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The market is 10 miles from the Wuhan lab, and Chinese researchers recently published that the market was illegally selling civets and raccoon dogs, both known to transmit coronaviruses, including SARS, to humans. Worobey has studied the origins of pandemics for over a decade. His research helped explain how the 1918 Spanish flu emerged and how HIV came to the US around 1970-71, much earlier than originally thought.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 began spreading in Wuhan in December 2019 and Worobey mapped the geography of those early cases. What he found was that the Huanan market, not the WIV, seemed to be the center of the new cases. His striking data shows clustering of early COVID-19 cases around the market, not the lab, and can be seen here. If the virus came from the WIV, it would be expected to see early cases near the lab. That was not seen.
How ever the virus got to Wuhan, cluster analysis indicates that it first spread from the market rather than the lab. While provocative, these data do not at all prove an animal origin for the virus. They also do not disprove the lab-origin theory. These data are a piece of the puzzle that is being assembled, which is how science is often done; one puzzle piece at a time.
Keep in mind it took over a decade to find the origin of HIV, and it took a few years to identify the sources of Ebola and the original SARS virus. It also is very possible we will never know where SARS-CoV-2 came from.
We will see.
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