The journal Science has reopened the controversy around the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic with research drawn from WHO data claiming it did originate in a wholesale food market in China.
Researchers pinpointed the area in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan, in Central China’s Hubei Province.
Understanding how severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in 2019 is critical to preventing zoonotic outbreaks before they become the next pandemic. Chinese authorities are sensitive to claims about the virus’s origins.
The report itself highlights some limitations in the study, and says: “Maximum effort must now be applied to elucidate the upstream events that might have brought SARS-CoV-2 into the Huanan market. To reduce the risk of future pandemics we must understand, and then limit, the routes and opportunities for virus spillover.”
The report, though, is quite direct in its findings: “We show the earliest known COVID-19 cases from December 2019, including those without reported direct links, were geographically centred on this market.
“Live SARS-CoV-2 susceptible mammals were sold at the market in late 2019 and, within the market, SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental samples were spatially associated with vendors selling live mammals.”
The researchers came close to identifying the animal host.
“We report that multiple plausible intermediate wildlife hosts of SARS-CoV-2 progenitor viruses, including red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), hog badgers (Arctonyx albogularis) and common raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides), were sold live at the Huanan market up until at least November of 2019. No reports are known to be available for SARS-CoV-2 test results from these mammals at the Huanan market. Despite a general slow-down in live animal sales during the winter months, we report that raccoon dogs that are sold for both meat and fur were consistently available for sale throughout the year, including at the Huanan market in November 2019…”
For all its interest and promise, they study has several limitations its authors acknowledge.
“We have been able to recover location data for most of the December-onset COVID-19 cases identified by the WHO mission and have been able to do so with sufficient precision to support our conclusions.
“However, we do not have access to the precise latitude and longitude coordinates of all these cases. Should such data exist, they may be accompanied by additional metadata, some of which we have reconstructed, but some of which, including the date of onset of each case, would be valuable for ongoing studies.
“We also lack direct evidence of an intermediate animal infected with a SARS-CoV-2 progenitor virus either at the Huanan market or at a location connected to its supply chain, like a farm.
“Additionally, no line list of early COVID-19 cases is available and we do not have complete details of environmental sampling, though compared to many other outbreaks, we have more comprehensive information on early cases, hospitalizations and environmental sampling.”