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Delayed Wuhan market report may provide details to COVID-19 origin puzzle

Published: Updated:

As the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is still being debated, a report points to a research paper from one-and-a-half years ago, that was published only in June this year on the outbreak stemming from infected wild animals.

The paper by Chinese virologist Xiao Xiao, according to Bloomberg, contains meticulously collected data and photographic evidence supporting scientists’ initial hypothesis on the wet market outbreak theory.

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The later speculation that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2), the virus that causes COVID-19, escaped from the Wuhan lab gained traction.

This may have been the reason that Xiao’s paper in collaboration with Chinese and international researchers, including Chris Newman, a British ecologist, was submitted to a scientific journal for publication but was overlooked.

People wait to buy food at a street market almost a year after the start of the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Wuhan, China Dec. 7, 2020. (Reuters)
People wait to buy food at a street market almost a year after the start of the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Wuhan, China Dec. 7, 2020. (Reuters)

As a virologist, Xiao Xiao’s roles straddled epidemiology and animal research at the government-funded Key Laboratory of Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation and at Hubei University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Xiao began surveying 17 shops at four Wuhan markets selling live wild animals in May 2017. The data in the report was collected by Xiao over 30 months. He was trying to find the source of a tick-borne, Lyme-like disease that had spread in Hubei province years earlier.

Every month, Xiao reportedly kept visiting the markets until November 2019, when the discovery of mysterious pneumonia cases that heralded the start of the Covid pandemic brought his visits to an abrupt end.

As the virus started to explode, Xiao recognized the potential significance of his data.

The report points out that minks, civets, raccoon dogs, and other mammals known to harbor coronaviruses were sold in plain sight for years in shops across the city, including the now infamous Huanan wet market, to which many of the earliest Covid cases were traced.

Had the study been made public right away, the search for the origins of the virus might have taken a very different course, according to the report.

Not only did the study contain conclusive evidence that live animals were being sold for human consumption at the epicenter of the outbreak, but the co-author of Xiao’s paper Newman says he assumes Xiao collected blood-sucking ticks from the wild animals he studiously cataloged. The blood meals of frozen tick samples could be examined for traces of the Coronavirus, which would be extremely helpful in identifying infected species prior to December 2019.

This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (L) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 27, 2020.
This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (L) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 27, 2020.

In the first months of the epidemic, local researchers asserted that the new coronavirus resembled a spillover from animals, reminiscent of the emergence of the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in wet markets in Guangdong almost 20 years ago. They also readily acknowledged the presence of “a variety of live wild animals” at Wuhan markets.

The Huanan market was shuttered in the early hours of January 1, 2020, and its 678 stalls emptied and sanitized. Chinese officials also ordered environmental samples to be collected from drains and other surfaces at the market. Some 585 specimens were tested, of which 33 turned out to be positive for SARS-CoV-2.

China temporarily banned the wildlife trade. The decision became permanent a month later and widened to prohibit human consumption of terrestrial wild animals.

A WHO-China joint mission to Wuhan to examine China’s response to the outbreak in February 2020 reported that an effort was under way to collect detailed records on the source and type of wildlife species sold at the Huanan market and the destination of those animals after the market was closed. But there’s no public record of that ever happening.

The international outrage directed at China and blame directed to the Wuhan virology institute for the pandemic has been strongly rebuffed by Chinese authorities.

A more recent paper by government-affiliated scientists contends that the virus may have been imported from multiple locations worldwide, including parts of Europe where mink are raised in areas inhabited also by horseshoe bats known to harbor coronaviruses.

“The official narrative changed not because the evidence changed,” says Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University’s School of Medicine in New Orleans.

“A spillover from a wet market was what caused SARS, and, embarrassingly for China, those wet markets were never shut down.”

Read more:

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