CovidThe discovery of a mistake in the timeline of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the focus of the origin of the highly-contagious coronavirus away from the lab-leak hypothesis and back to the probability that the first patient was directly infected by an animal from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.

While no definitive evidence exists for either scenario, the lab-leak hypothesis gained traction due to the first known person to have fallen ill due to a SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infection was a 41-year-old accountant that lived 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the market that was assumed to be the epicenter of the initial outbreak, who was admitted to hospital on December 8, 2019; the first case linked to the Huanan Seafood Market wasn’t admitted to hospital until December 11—a full three days later—making it appear that patient zero had no apparent connection to the market.

However, during his investigation Dr. Michael Worobey, a leading expert in tracing the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona, discovered that it was assumed that the accountant’s December 8 admission to hospital was because he was ill with COVID-19, when in fact he had gone to the hospital due to dental problems. Although he did eventually develop COVID-19 symptoms, this was not until December 16, making the December 11 illness from the market the first known case. Worobey verified the information using hospital records, a related scientific paper and media interviews with the accountant.

Worobey is unsure as to why this discrepancy wound up in the World Health Organization’s report, considering that the organization’s investigative team interviewed the accountant himself. “My guess is that they were told that this was the ‘December 8’ patient and just accepted it as read,” Worobey muses. “But it would be interesting to learn more about that interview, for sure.”

Worobey also analyzed the pattern of the early outbreaks in Wuhan, and found that one-third of the retrospectively identified cases from December 2019 were connected to the market, a pattern that would be expected if that location was ground zero for the pandemic. Because of the asymptomatic nature of the disease and its relatively long period between a patient’s initial infection and the onset of symptoms, cases would emerge that would appear to be unrelated to the actual source.

Conversely, if the initial human infection by SARS-CoV-2 had been elsewhere and the outbreak at the seafood market merely an incidental event, this pattern mightn’t have been as apparent. “In this city of 11 million people, half of the early cases are linked to a place that’s the size of a soccer field,” explains Dr. Worobey. “It becomes very difficult to explain that pattern if the outbreak didn’t start at the market.”

Worobey also points out that at the outset of the outbreak the first three hospitals involved identified 19 unexplained pneumonia cases, 10 of which were linked to the market. He also discovered that the early cases were linked to the western section of the market where live animals are kept, including raccoon dogs, a species known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection but without apparent symptoms.

While this is not definitive proof that the coronavirus did not originate from a lab, the evidence for such a scenario was never strong to begin with, being largely circumstantial, along with the idea that the 4 percent genetic difference between SARS-CoV-2 and its closest known relative, found in horseshoe bats, is best explained by interference from gain-of-function experiments, although there is no actual evidence that either corroborates or refutes such a scenario.

Regardless, Professor David Robertson, the University of Glasgow’s Head of Viral Genomics and Bioinformatics, says that “this is compelling evidence that covid-19 has a live-animal-associated market origin much like the first SARS virus. Whether the initial transmissions were from animals to customers in the market, via vendors or both is hard to say.”

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  1. Why are you so invested in disproving the lab leak hypothesis, front page editor? There are literally e-mails from Peter Daszak of Eco-Health Alliance talking about splicing DNA into Coronaviruses to make them more lethal, sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

    1. I don’t think it’s saying anything surprising that the site has a leftward lean that reflect at least certain elements of the Editor’s (and Whitley’s) own political views. The coverage on climate change and covid are clear indicators, IMO. That said, at least the site does try (with some mixed results at times) to refrain from wearing politics as a badge like many other sites.

      1. Then it might comfort you when I say that that politics plays no role in my authoring of these articles. For me, issues like climate and COVID are not political issues: although we might report on policies being made in regard to those issues we take as neutral a stance as possible when they arise; otherwise, the majority of the articles posted here concern actual scientific research findings, and not what some politician said in order to win a very expensive popularity contest. I’ve always distrusted politicians since I was a kid, since they’re as fallible and corruptible in my country as they are in yours, and quite frankly, I don’t care about what they want me to think.

        I can understand why Unknown Country can look like a political website to some: since many of the issues that we report on have been unfairly and unnecessarily politicized, a reader might dismiss an article that runs contrary to their beliefs as having been politically influenced, since it’s not the truth–their own personal truth, at least. And to the politically-minded, virtually everything is a political issue.

        Admittedly, we do have an agenda in this regard: to advance awareness of what’s happening with the environment and the planetary climate, and what the science is regarding the current pandemic–the talking heads be damned. Although these two issues are not the only ones, we consider them to be of paramount import, as the latter has led to widespread deaths and the crippling of economies, while the former threatens our very civilization.

        1. Fair enough. It is unfortunate that a political tinge is applied to almost everything in the present day. At this point it’s becoming a sort of self-reinforcing joke on everyone – people complain about politics at the same time they are making vitriolic political accusations against those with whom they disagree – it even happens on the comments sections of this site! Underlying all of this, I think, is a fundamental distrust that people have of institutions and each other on all sides – a not undeserved distrust either given the unfolding of history in the last 50 or so odd years.

    2. I am not trying to disprove the lab-leak scenario: unlike many others, not only do I not have a horse in this race, I also don’t have the power to dictate reality in that way, as many others believe they can.

      What I do is report on what the people who are actually investigating the issue are discovering, and whether or not it’s by design, they’re not finding much that actually points to the lab-leak scenario. Dr. Worobey was an advocate for a more serious investigation into the lab-leak scenario, hence his own investigation into the matter, and is on record saying that it’s still a viable possibility.

      In his own words: “I’ve seen no evidence that I can look at and say, ‘Oh, OK, this certainly refutes the accidental lab origin and makes it virtually 100% certain that it was a natural event’. Until we’re at the stage, both possibilities are viable.”

      While I understand that many people have the need to live in certainty, there are those of us that have no trouble living in question; many need the virus to have originated from a lab, while there are many that have just as strong a need for it to have a zoonotic origin. But I count myself amongst the odd group that treats this scenario like Schrodinger’s virus: it was neither and yet both, at least until someone can find some definitive evidence on the matter.

      I should also caution that while the gain-of-function experiments conducted at the WIV are a matter of record, that, in-of-itself, is not proof that that was the origin of the virus.

  2. The matter has become so politicized that whether either or another scenario is ultimately proven or not, vast numbers of those from the political “tribe” tending to believe the opposite are simply not going to believe it. Whatever scenario fits the narrative that makes their political side look better will be what they consider true, and for them, that will be the end of matters right there. (The same folks will also always believe of themselves that they have been nothing but saintly paragons of objectivity the whole time.)

    1. So true. At this point both sides have become a cult – each insistent that they are the righteous.

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