The coronavirus likely traveled 800 miles to Wuhan from farms that breed wild animals for food, a WHO report found

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The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, a site of one of the first COVID-19 super-spreader events, sits closed on January 21, 2020.

After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered its best guess as to where the coronavirus came from and how it got into the human population.

A 120-page report released Tuesday lists the virus’ potential origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host. But the WHO team, which visited Wuhan from January to February, was in the end unable to pinpoint which population of bats, or which intermediary species, was carrying the virus.

The group did, however, determine that the cross-species hop most likely happened at a farm where wild animals were bred for food in southern China.

“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR.

The WHO team thinks that spillover event, as its known, happened in November or even October 2019. China shut down these types of wildlife farms in February 2020, Daszak said.

‘There is a pathway that this virus could’ve taken’

china rabbit farm
A farmer checks rabbits at his farm in Chongqing, China, January 29, 2021.

Daszak said his team found evidence that wildlife farms in China’s Yunnan province and surrounding provinces supplied vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The first cluster of COVID-19 cases reported in December was linked to that market, which sold live animals and frozen meat.

Two studies published last year found that the new coronavirus shares 96% and 97.1% of its genetic code with coronaviruses seen in Chinese horseshoe bat populations from the Yunnan province, which borders Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

“Animals that we know are coronavirus reservoirs or able to carry coronaviruses came from places where the nearest related viruses are found,” Daszak said Tuesday in a WHO press conference. “There is a pathway that this virus could’ve taken to move 800 to 1,000 miles from the rural parts of south China, southeast Asia, to this market.”

According to the WHO report, possible intermediary host species that may have been raised at these wildlife farms include: minks, pangolins, rabbits, raccoon dogs, and domesticated cats. All of these species can be infected by the new coronavirus. The team is also considering civets, ferret badgers, and weasels as potential hosts, since these animals got infected with the SARS coronavirus and passed it to people in 2002.

china mink
A woman carrying mink furs walks at an open air market in China’s Hebei province, November 19, 2020.

Any contact with an infected animal, or with animal products or poop, can allow a virus to jump from animals to people.

But the WHO team didn’t find any infected animals

Daszak’s group took 900 samples from the Huanan market, which closed in early January 2020. They swabbed surfaces, examined animal carcasses, and tested sewage, looking for evidence of the virus. The results showed the surfaces were indeed contaminated with viral particles, but none of the animal carcasses studied – or live animals brought to the site – tested positive.

This suggests that humans, not animals, most likely brought the virus into the market. Indeed, the WHO team concluded the virus had been circulating in Wuhan for a month or more before the outbreak there.

In this photo taken June 11, 2020, and released by CBCGDF, Sophia Zhang, a staffer from China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, or CBCGDF, collects oral and nasal secretion sample for testing from the Pangolin named Lijin at the Jinhua wild animal rescue center in eastern China's Zhejiang province. (CBCGDF via AP)
A staff member collects samples for testing from a pangolin at the Jinhua wild animal rescue center in China’s Zhejiang province, June 11, 2020.

The WHO team also examined more than 80,000 samples from cattle, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs from 31 provinces across China. There wasn’t a single positive case among them. None of the animals had coronavirus-specific antibodies, either, which would have indicated a past infection.

The researchers weren’t able to test animals at wildlife in farms from southern China for evidence of infection, however, so they recommended doing so in a follow-up investigation.

Finding the bat population that first harbored the virus may be easier

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the Rhinolophis sinicus species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

According to Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife veterinarian with the WHO team, it’s more likely that the team will find the bat population the virus first lived in, rather than the animal that passed it to humans.

“At this point, it may well have disappeared from any intermediate host, so sampling bats, in particular, is probably the most likely to yield results,” Leendertz told Science.

Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

Still, the WHO team tested samples from more than 1,100 bats in the Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and did not see any viruses closely related to the new coronavirus. That non-finding lends credence to the idea that the virus first jumped to people elsewhere in China.

Daszak is still confident, however, that scientists will eventually find the population of bats that were the coronavirus’ original hosts.

“It would’ve been incredible to have a bat with the exact same lineage of viruses,” he said. “We didn’t see that yet. That will come in the future I think.”

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A WHO investigation into the coronavirus’ origins points the finger at animals in Chinese wildlife farms

covid researchers wuhan
A worker in protective GEAR directs members of the World Health Organization team at the airport in Wuhan, China, January 14, 2021.

A new World Health Organization report, set to be released on Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood.

According to the the Associated Press, which obtained a draft copy of the report, the most likely option is that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Next on the likelihood ranking is the possibility that the virus jumped directly from bats to people.

The report is the product of a month-long investigation by an international team that was sent to Wuhan, China, in January to investigate how the virus got into the human population, and from where. The effort, however, yielded few definitive answers.

The WHO team also evaluated less plausible theories, the AP reported, including that the virus might have spread to humans via frozen food products; the report authors deemed this scenario “not likely.” One hypothesis was labeled “extremely unlikely” and all but dismissed: the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab.

Chinese wildlife farms are a possible origin site

china rabbit farm
A farmer checks rabbits at his farm on January 29, 2021 in Chongqing, China.

The WHO experts behind the report – which the AP got from a diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland – worked together with Chinese scientists during their trip. The WHO team said it got unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where officials reported the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases in December 2019.

The group’s conclusion, though far from certain, is that wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely place where the virus made a cross-species hop into humans.

“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR. He added that China shut down those wildlife farms in February 2020.

The coronavirus probably came into our population via one of those bred animals, perhaps a pangolin, rabbit, or ferret, according to the WHO. Daszak said his team found evidence that these wildlife farms supplied vendors at the Huanan market.

The virus likely came from bats, and it didn’t leak from a lab

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the Rhinolophis sinicus bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

Although the WHO report does not pinpoint exactly where the coronavirus outbreak began, it does offer reasons why it almost certainly did not leak from a lab, as some unsubstantiated theories suggest.

Ideas about a lab leak often point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic. The lab is about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

But the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the institute, or at any other labs in China, before the pandemic began. The team also spoke with managers and staff at the institute about their safety protocols.

According to Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, it is “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Much more likely, the WHO experts said, is that the virus started circulating in bats first.

A study from February 2020 found that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then another study revealed an even closer match: a 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

‘Real concerns about the methodology’

wuhan huanan market
Residents wear masks in Wuhan, February 9, 2021.

Doubts about the trustworthiness of the WHO report linger, however. The AP revealed in December that the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the virus’ origins, while simultaneously promoting theories that it came from outside of China. Mounting evidence also suggests that the virus was circulating in China months before the first cases were reported.

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Thursday. During his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said he thought China had misled the world about the coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’s reserving judgment about the WHO findings until he can “get a feel for what they had or did not have access to.”

“Once I get that information, I’ll be able to more adequately answer whether I trust it or not,” Fauci said of the report in a White House press briefing on Monday.

The lingering uncertainty leaves a door open for unsubstantiated theories to continue to spread. Robert Redfield, who was head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, recently reiterated one such idea: that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab.

“Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield told CNN on Friday, adding, “I’m allowed to have opinions now.”

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The WHO team probing the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan is scrapping its interim report. Critics say China never gave them a real chance to investigate.

WHO investigation Wuhan
Experts from the WHO-China joint team Liang Wannian and Peter Ben Embarek at the WHO-China Joint Study press conference on February 9, 2021 in Wuhan, China.

  • An interim report summarizing the WHO investigation into the origins of the virus has been scrapped. 
  • The WHO says this summary will be published with the full report “in coming weeks”. 
  • This comes as the independence of the investigation from Chinese influence has come under scrutiny. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

An interim report summarizing an World Health Organisation investigation into the origins of the coronavirus has been scrapped, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday

WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said on February 12 that a summary of the results would come within weeks, the Journal said.

But that plan has been scrapped, lead scientist on the investigation team, Peter Ben Embarek, told the Journal

The results of the WHO-China Joint study are not yet public, the WHO confirmed in an email to Insider on Friday. 

Instead, “the team wants to issue the full report at the same time as the summary so all information is available to public”, said spokesman Tarik Jašarević. 

This news comes as the independence of the team conducting the investigation has come under fire. 

In a letter published on Thursday, 26 scientists not affiliated with the WHO team said that “structural limitations” in how the team operated made a full examination of the origins of the pandemic “all but impossible”.

The scientists said that half of the team is made up of “Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited”.

The investigation has to rely on “information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them”, the scientists said in the letter. 

The WHO team arrived in January to Wuhan to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. It was over a year after the beginning of the outbreak. 

After a month-long investigation, the team presented its early conclusions to journalists, saying that they had ruled out a laboratory origin for the virus.

After the press conference, one of the scientists on the team said that China had refused to release the raw data to the WHO team, making it more difficult to assess the quality of the information.

Responding to that report, the White House said on February 13 it was “deeply concerned” about the way the early findings were communicated, and called on China to release the data from the earliest days of the outbreak.

“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government”, the statement said.

The WHO told Insider in an email that the full report is “expected in coming weeks”.

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I’m a doctor who was on the WHO’s COVID-19 mission to China. Here’s what we learned about the virus’ origins.

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The shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, January 21, 2020.

As I write, I am in hotel quarantine in Sydney, after returning from Wuhan, China. There, I was the Australian representative on the international World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Much has been said of the politics surrounding the mission to investigate the viral origins of COVID-19. So it’s easy to forget that behind these investigations are real people.

As part of the mission, we met the man who, on December 8, 2019, was the first confirmed COVID-19 case; he’s since recovered. We met the husband of a doctor who died of COVID-19 and left behind a young child. We met the doctors who worked in the Wuhan hospitals treating those early COVID-19 cases, and learned what happened to them and their colleagues. We witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on many individuals and communities, affected so early in the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat COVID-19, or its impacts.

We talked to our Chinese counterparts – scientists, epidemiologists, doctors – over the four weeks the WHO mission was in China. We were in meetings with them for up to 15 hours a day, so we became colleagues, even friends. This allowed us to build respect and trust in a way you couldn’t necessarily do via Zoom or email.

This is what we learned about the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The virus was most likely of animal origin

wuhan huanan market
A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

It was in Wuhan, in central China, that the virus, now called SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019, unleashing the greatest infectious disease outbreak since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Our investigations concluded the virus was most likely of animal origin. It probably crossed over to humans from bats, via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal, at an unknown location. Such “zoonotic” diseases have triggered pandemics before. But we are still working to confirm the exact chain of events that led to the current pandemic. Sampling of bats in Hubei province and wildlife across China has revealed no SARS-CoV-2 to date.

We visited the now-closed Wuhan wet market which, in the early days of the pandemic, was blamed as the source of the virus. Some stalls at the market sold “domesticated” wildlife products. These are animals raised for food, such as bamboo rats, civets, and ferret badgers. There is also evidence some domesticated wildlife may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. However, none of the animal products sampled after the market’s closure tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

We also know not all of those first 174 early COVID-19 cases visited the market, including the man who was diagnosed in December 2019 with the earliest onset date.

However, when we visited the closed market, it’s easy to see how an infection might have spread there. When it was open, there would have been around 10,000 people visiting a day, in close proximity, with poor ventilation and drainage.

There’s also genetic evidence generated during the mission for a transmission cluster there. Viral sequences from several of the market cases were identical, suggesting a transmission cluster. However, there was some diversity in other viral sequences, implying other unknown or unsampled chains of transmission.

A summary of modelling studies of the time to the most recent common ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 sequences estimated the start of the pandemic between mid-November and early December. There are also publications suggesting SARS-CoV-2 circulation in various countries earlier than the first case in Wuhan, although these require confirmation.

The market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. So we need to look elsewhere for the viral origins.

Did frozen or refrigerated food play a role?

frozen food coronavirus china
A woman looks at frozen food in a supermarket in Beijing, China, August 13, 2020.

Then there was the “cold chain” hypothesis. This is the idea the virus might have originated from elsewhere via the farming, catching, processing, transporting, refrigeration, or freezing of food. Was that food ice cream, fish, wildlife meat? We don’t know. It’s unproven that this triggered the origin of the virus itself. But to what extent did it contribute to its spread? Again, we don’t know.

Several “cold chain” products present in the Wuhan market were not tested for the virus. Environmental sampling in the market showed viral surface contamination. This may indicate the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 through infected people, or contaminated animal products and “cold chain” products. Investigation of “cold chain” products and virus survival at low temperatures is still underway.

It’s extremely unlikely that the virus escaped from a lab

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely.

We visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is an impressive research facility, and looks to be run well, with due regard to staff health.

We spoke to the scientists there. We heard that scientists’ blood samples, which are routinely taken and stored, were tested for signs they had been infected. No evidence of antibodies to the coronavirus was found. We looked at their biosecurity audits. No evidence.

We looked at the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 they were working on – the virus RaTG13 – which had been detected in caves in southern China where some miners had died seven years previously.

But all the scientists had was a genetic sequence for this virus. They hadn’t managed to grow it in culture. While viruses certainly do escape from laboratories, this is rare. So, we concluded it was extremely unlikely this had happened in Wuhan.

A team of more than 30 experts 

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Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic at a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

When I say “we,” the mission was a joint exercise between the WHO and the Chinese health commission. In all, there were 17 Chinese and 10 international experts, plus seven other experts and support staff from various agencies. We looked at the clinical epidemiology (how COVID-19 spread among people), the molecular epidemiology (the genetic makeup of the virus and its spread), and the role of animals and the environment.

The clinical epidemiology group alone looked at China’s records of 76,000 episodes from more than 200 institutions of anything that could have resembled COVID-19 – such as influenza-like illnesses, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. They found no clear evidence of substantial circulation of COVID-19 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019 before the first case.

What’s next?

Our mission to China was only phase one. We are due to publish our official report in the coming weeks. Investigators will also look further afield for data, to investigate evidence the virus was circulating in Europe, for instance, earlier in 2019. Investigators will continue to test wildlife and other animals in the region for signs of the virus. And we’ll continue to learn from our experiences to improve how we investigate the next pandemic.

Irrespective of the origins of the virus, individual people with the disease are at the beginning of the epidemiology data points, sequences, and numbers. The long-term physical and psychological effects – the tragedy and anxiety – will be felt in Wuhan, and elsewhere, for decades to come.

The Conversation
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Suspicions mount that the coronavirus was spreading in China and Europe as early as October, following a WHO investigation

covid researchers wuhan
A worker in protective coverings directs members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team on their arrival at the airport in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on January 14, 2021.

  • Experts from the WHO and China conducted an investigation into the coronavirus’ origins in Wuhan.
  • The investigation bolstered findings from studies that suggested the virus was circulating in China and Europe months before officials confirmed the first cases.
  • One study found that some people in the US had coronavirus antibodies in December 2019.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A growing body of evidence suggests the coronavirus was spreading globally months before the first cases in a Wuhan market captured global attention last December.

The World Health Organization sent an international team to China in January to investigate the virus’ origins and when it started circulating.

The team assessed medical records from more than 230 clinics across Hubei – the province where Wuhan is located – to look for clues. More than 90 patients in the province were hospitalized with pneumonia or coronavirus-like symptoms in October and November 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

This finding lends credence to other research from China that shows people were getting sick in Wuhan in November and early December. One analysis, based on satellite images of Wuhan hospitals and online searches for COVID-19 symptoms in the area, suggested the virus may have started circulating there as early as late summer.

A study from Milan’s National Cancer Institute also found that four of Italy’s coronavirus cases dated back to October 2019. Another study suggests the virus reached the US’ West Coast in December 2019.

Although pinpointing the exact date of the virus’ first jump from animals to people is impossible without more data, these findings suggest the pandemic’s December anniversary is arbitrary.

The virus was spreading in Wuhan before the December

Wuhan hospital
Healthcare workers transport bodies outside a hospital in Wuhan, China, February 5, 2020.

Wuhan public-health officials initially told the WHO about a mysterious illness that would later be named the novel coronavirus on December 31, 2019.

But government records show China’s first coronavirus case happened on November 17, 2019, according to an investigation by the South China Morning Post.

According to the SCMP, Chinese medical experts pinpointed 60 coronavirus cases from November and December by reanalyzing samples taken from patients seen during that time. That analysis showed that a 55-year-old from Hubei was the first known case of COVID-19 in the world, though the disease hadn’t been identified at that time.

Prior to the January WHO investigation, Chinese authorities worked to sample blood from 92 people in Hubei who were hospitalized with coronavirus-like symptoms prior to the start of the pandemic.

They sampled blood from two-thirds of those patients that to check for coronavirus-specific antibodies, which would indicate the patients had previously been infected with the virus. All of the samples tested negative for those antibodies, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The remaining one-third of those 92 patients had either died or refused to participate in antibody testing.

The negative results may not mean those people didn’t have COVID-19. Antibody levels do decrease over time, particularly after mild cases. But those patients were also hospitalized, suggesting a more severe illness.

“Antibodies do clear. The levels go down, but less so in cases of severe infection,” Marion Koopmans, a virologist on the WHO team, told the Wall Street Journal. “From what we know about serology, out of 92 cases you would at least have some positives.”

A study from researchers at Harvard University did find more people were visiting Wuhan hospitals in the latter half of 2019. The study authors used satellite imagery of the city to measure traffic to six city hospitals. They saw an uptick starting in August 2019, which peaked six months later. This timeline coincided with an increase in online search traffic for terms like “diarrhea” and “cough.”

The Wuhan market was not the origin of the pandemic

Wuhan lockdown
Security personnel wear masks walk in front of a field hospital in Wuhan on April 9, 2020.

Among the 41 coronavirus cases, Wuhan first reported, many were people who visited or worked at the city’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

But according to an April report, 13 of the 41 original cases had no link to the market – which suggests the market wasn’t the origin site of the pandemic.

The WHO team confirmed the virus didn’t make its initial jump from animals to humans at the Huanan market. Evidence suggests the virus was circulating elsewhere in Wuhan before the market outbreak happened, Liang Wannian, a member of China’s National Health Commission who assisted with the WHO investigation, said in a press conference Tuesday.

wuhan wet market
This wet market in Wuhan, China, pictured on January 21, 2020, was linked to one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks.

A May investigation also led the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to rule the market out as the origin place of the outbreak. That’s because none of the animals there tested positive for the virus.

Most likely, the market was simply the site of an early superspreader event, with one sick person infecting an atypically large number of others. Superspreader events around the world have created clusters of infections that cropped up almost overnight. 

Research suggests the virus was in Italy in the fall of 2019

italy coronavirus
A COVID-19 patient is transported by nurses inside a biological containment stretcher in the Da Procida Hospital in Salerno, Italy, April 8, 2020.

Italy recorded its first official coronavirus case in Lombardy on February 21, 2020. Yet a recent study found coronavirus antibodies in blood samples collected from 23 Italians in September 2019 and 27 in October 2019.

“Our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 circulated in Italy earlier than the first official COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Lombardy, even long before the first official reports from the Chinese authorities, casting new light on the onset and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote. (SARS-CoV-2 is the clinical name of the virus.)

A study conducted by Rome’s Department of Environment and Health supports that conclusion: Researchers found the coronavirus’ genetic material in sewage samples from Milan and Turin dating back to December 18, 2019.

italy coronavirus mask flag
A man walks past a billboard raising awareness about the new coronavirus that reads “All together, without fear,” in Naples, Italy on March 22, 2020.

Spain and France also found clues that the virus was circulating in 2019

In May, doctors at a Paris hospital discovered that patients they’d treated for pneumonia on December 27, 2019, had been sick with COVID-19. France didn’t record its first official case until January 24, however.

Barcelona, Spain, COVID-19 coronavirus August 31 2020
People in line for coronavirus tests in Barcelona, Spain, on August 31, 2020.

In Spain, meanwhile, researchers from the University of Barcelona found evidence of the coronavirus in city sewage samples collected in mid-January 2020, six weeks before the country’s first official case. 

Surprisingly, a sewage sample collected on March 12, 2019, also tested positive for traces of the coronavirus. But testing wastewater isn’t a perfect way to detect outbreaks, as Claire Crossan wrote in The Conversation. So it’s possible that the March sample had been contaminated during the study. 

By December 2019, the virus had reached the US

california beach pier coronavirus oceanside crowd masks
Few people wear masks on a pier in Oceanside, California, June 22, 2020.

Research in the US, too, offers evidence that the virus had gone global before humanity even knew it existed.

The US recorded its first coronavirus case on January 20, 2020. But according to one study, the virus had reached the Pacific Northwest at least a month earlier. Blood samples collected by the American Red Cross in nine states, including California, Oregon, and Washington, showed that some Americans had coronavirus antibodies as early as December 13, 2019.

Detroit tests for antibodies
A young resident of Detroit, Michigan, is tested for coronavirus antibodies on April 28, 2020.

Antibodies are an imperfect measure of the outbreak since some research suggests our immune systems can create antibodies that recognize the new coronavirus in response to some common colds. Antibody tests can also yield false positives.

Yet in the past, scientists successfully used retrospective antibody studies to trace the origins of SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) – both coronaviruses. Virologists found antibodies specific to SARS in civet cats, and antibodies specific to MERS in camels, which is how they determined those to be each virus’ animal progenitor.

Further examination of blood samples taken in 2019 could be the best way to find out when this pandemic really began.

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WHO and Chinese scientists concluded it’s ‘extremely unlikely’ the coronavirus leaked from a lab, after a 4-week investigation

wuhan huanan market
A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

A year into the pandemic, the origins of the coronavirus are still a mystery. 

The World Health Organization sent an international team to Wuhan, China in January to investigate where the virus came from and how it was introduced into the human population. Yet the investigation yielded few definitive answers.

The experts were able to take one hypothesis off the table, however: the idea that the novel coronavirus may have accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab. This unsubstantiated theory was pushed by some members of the Trump administration in the spring. But Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s food safety and animal disease specialist, said in a Tuesday press conference that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population.”

The WHO team will not be revisiting that hypothesis in future studies, he said, adding that the virus most likely jumped from an animal host into people – just like Ebola and SARS did.

‘It was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place’

WHO wuhan
Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

Working together with Chinese scientists, the WHO experts had unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Market, which was linked to the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases. 

Those who’d suggested the possibility of a lab leak mostly pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, since some scientists there study coronaviruses. It’s one of the highest-level biosafety labs in the world. There’s no evidence, however, that any coronavirus sample collected for study in that lab was accidentally released.

The WHO team spoke with managers and staff at the institute and other labs in the area about their safety protocols.

“Accidents do happen,” Ben Embarek said. “We have many examples in many countries in the world of past accidents.” But he added that such accidents are rare and the Wuhan institute houses a “state of the art lab and it is very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

Jonna Mazet, a US epidemiologist who has worked with and trained researchers at the institute, also previously told Insider that “it’s highly unlikely this was a lab accident,” 

Mazet said she helped the staff develop and implement a “very stringent safety protocol.”

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

In fact, the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the novel coronavirus existed in any Wuhan labs, or any other labs in the world, before the pandemic. 

Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan institute, told Scientific American in April that she personally checked and found that none of the coronavirus samples stored at the institute matched the novel coronavirus’ genome.

“That really took a load off my mind,” Shi said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

The virus likely jumped from bats to an intermediary host, then to people

Most experts agree that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, jumped from an animal host to humans in what’s known as a spillover event.

Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bats also led to outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. So labs around the world have analyzed genetic samples of bat coronaviruses that were circulating prior to the pandemic. One study found in February that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then a May study revealed a closer match: A 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

According to the WHO team, it’s unlikely the virus hopped directly from bats to people, though.

“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” Ben Embarek said. 

Animals that might have served as that intermediary host include pangolins, ferrets, minks, snakes, or turtles. 

Marion Koopmans, a WHO virologist, said in the press conference the team found that rabbits and ferret-badgers sold at the Huanan Seafood Market came from regions in China where bats and other animals harbor viruses similar to the new coronavirus. Both of those species are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, so have been intermediary hosts. 

wuhan huanan market
Residents wear masks while walking in Wuhan, China, February 9, 2021.

But the WHO experts couldn’t confirm how the new coronavirus arrived at the Huanan market. It’s possible that an infected person passed the virus to others at the market, or “it could also be through the introduction of a product,” Ben Embarek said.

“A frozen wild animal that was infected could be a potential vehicle of the virus into market environments,” he added.

Still, the cases linked to the Huanan market were not the first in China.

The virus wasn’t engineered in a lab, either

A conspiracy theory similar to the lab-leak idea is that the new coronavirus was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. A group of Chinese virologists with ties to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon suggested in September that Chinese scientists engineered the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as a “backbone” or “template.”

One of those virologists, Li-Meng Yan, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the virus was “man-made” and “intentionally” released by the Chinese government.

But that theory “has already been refuted by the scientific community around the world,” Liang Wannian, a member of China’s National Health Commission who assisted with the WHO investigation, said at the press conference.

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A worker in protective gear directs members of the WHO investigation team upon their arrival at the airport in Wuhan, January 14, 2021.

A March study published in the journal Nature concluded based on genetic analysis that the new coronavirus wasn’t a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses. The authors found it could not be a “laboratory construct” or “purposefully manipulated virus.”

“The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” they said.

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An elite panel of world leaders has called out China for its bungled coronavirus response and is vowing to shore up the fledgling ‘global pandemic alert system’ by May

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

  • A group of world leaders tasked with leading a postmortem on the global response to the coronavirus pandemic has issued a rebuke to China’s early handling of the outbreak.
  • The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which reports to the World Health Organization, chastised the Chinese government on Monday for what it suggested was a bungled response to COVID-19.
  • “What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” they wrote in a new report.
  • The group also promised to issue new guidance to fix the world’s “global pandemic alert system,” which it called “not fit for purpose,” in another report coming in May.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A group of world leaders tasked with leading a postmortem on the global response to the coronavirus pandemic has issued a rebuke to China’s early handling of the outbreak. The group is promising to follow up with a laundry list of new recommendations on where the world went wrong in responding to the crisis.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, a group of world leaders that collectively report to the World Health Organization, chastised the Chinese government on Monday for what it suggested was a bungled response to the emergence of COVID-19, which ultimately spiraled out of control last year.

“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” the Independent Panel said in a new report. The panel counts among its members Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia.

China was the first country to battle the coronavirus pandemic, locking down many regions at the beginning of 2020 to control its spread. Nevertheless, the virus managed to slip beyond China’s borders.

Still, the panel noted that China isn’t the only country to have struggled in its response to the pandemic.

“Never before in modern times has the international community been called on to respond to a global health crisis of this magnitude and with such widespread consequences,” the report went on to say. “The international system’s response has been found wanting in many respects.”

The group went on to call groups of countries like those in the G7 and G8 “largely reactive” in their COVID response, as opposed to proactive in implementing successful mitigation or control protocols.

With nearly 100 million confirmed cases and more than two million recorded deaths worldwide, following the panel’s guidance could be crucial for preventing such lethal public health crises in the future.

Read more: How pharmacies and retailers like Walmart, Kroger, and Rite Aid could benefit from the vaccination push

‘The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose’

To prevent another threatening virus from overwhelming the world’s patchwork public health systems, the panel promised to review the existing preventative structures as well as shore up protocols to deal with emerging diseases.

“The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose,” the report authors wrote. “Critical elements of the system are slow, cumbersome, and indecisive.”

The panel looked back on recommendations for handling the pandemic that the World Health Organization published throughout 2020, and identified nearly 900 individual pieces of guidance issued by the WHO or its regional offices. The flurry of constantly-evolving guidance itself could have overwhelmed people and contributed to confusion, the report noted.

“The sheer volume of recommendations issued suggests to the Panel the major risk of a lack of direction, clarity, and consistency of the type which would have assisted countries to set priorities in their responses,” the authors wrote, adding that they’ll continue to scrutinize the “coherence and prioritization of recommendations, and evidence concerning their actual patterns of use.”

Now, the panel plans to take a close look at “the methods and tools employed by surveillance and alarm systems” around the world and assess how effective those systems are. They committed to issuing a report in May of this year that could help bring about a “global reset,” and lay the groundwork for a more efficacious response than the one which unfolded in 2020.

Read more: The UK’s hospital system is on the brink of collapse, forcing overworked staff to postpone cancer treatments, stretch oxygen supplies, and put themselves at risk of catching COVID-19

Another report claims Chinese officials in Wuhan failed to direct a swift, cohesive response to the virus

The panel’s conclusions came out on the same day that the Al Jazeera news agency published previously-unseen videos of the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. The footage, shot clandestinely by two reporters and smuggled outside of China, is said to show how fear and confusion first spread in Wuhan, the hard-hit Chinese capital of Hubei province.

The videos, which Al Jazeera says were shot between January 19 and January 22, 2020, demonstrate the initial lack of urgency with which leaders in Wuhan met the novel coronavirus. Later footage captures the devolution into a much graver state that engulfed the city, which was eventually locked down. One of the reporters who is said to have filmed the footage wrote in his diary that “the lack of staff and equipment in Wuhan caused many infected patients to be denied treatment.”

In spite of China’s early difficulties combating the virus, strict public health measures have helped the country keep its newly-diagnosed daily cases low. Last week, however, the Associated Press reported that China was erecting a new 3,000-unit quarantine facility in the capital of the northern Hebei province, as a response to gradually rising case counts.

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The coronavirus was circulating in Europe and China months before officials identified the outbreak in Wuhan, studies show

italy coronavirus mask flag
A man walks past a billboard that reads “All together, without fear,” in Naples, Italy, March 22, 2020.

  • December 31 marks the anniversary of the first confirmed coronavirus cases in Wuhan.
  • But a growing body of evidence suggest the virus was circulating in China and some European countries months before that.
  • In the US, meanwhile, a study found that some people had coronavirus antibodies in December 2019.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Almost exactly one year has passed since the World Health Organization announced the first confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.

Yet the virus’ origin and the true timeline of its worldwide spread remain a mystery. A growing body of evidence now suggests it was circulating months before the first cases captured global attention in Wuhan, China.

A study from Milan’s National Cancer Institute found that four of Italy’s coronavirus cases dated back to October 2019. Research from China shows people were getting sick in Wuhan in November and early December: One analysis, based on satellite images of Wuhan hospitals and online searches for COVID-19 symptoms in the area, suggested the virus may have started circulating there as early as late summer.

Although pinpointing the exact date of the virus’s first jump from animals to people is impossible without more data, many studies suggest the pandemic’s December anniversary is arbitrary.

“It is perfectly possible that the initial cross-species transmission event did not happen in or around Wuhan itself,” Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney, told The Guardian.

The virus was spreading in Wuhan before December

Wuhan hospital
Healthcare workers transport bodies outside a hospital in Wuhan, China, February 5, 2020.

Authorities in Wuhan initially told the WHO about a mysterious, new virus on December 31. But government records show China’s first coronavirus case happened on November 17, 2019, according to an investigation by the South China Morning Post.

According to the SCMP, Chinese medical experts pinpointed 60 coronaviruses cases from November and December by reanalyzing samples taken from patients seen during that time. That analysis showed that a 55-year-old from Hubei province (where Wuhan in located), was the first known case of COVID-19 in the world, though the disease hadn’t received that name yet.

Wuhan lockdown
Security personnel wear masks walk in front of a field hospital in Wuhan on April 9, 2020.

In another study, researchers at Harvard University used satellite imagery of Wuhan to measure traffic to six city hospitals. They saw an uptick starting in August 2019, which peaked six months later. This timeline coincided with an increase in online search traffic for terms like “diarrhea” and “cough,” the study authors found.

Even an investigation of the Wuhan market linked to many of the early cases has shown that it wasn’t the origin site of the pandemic. Among the 41 coronavirus cases Wuhan first reported, many were people who visited or worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. But according to a report in The Lancet, 13 of those original cases had no link to the market

wuhan wet market
This wet market in Wuhan, China, pictured on January 21, 2020, was linked to one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks.

A May investigation also led the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to rule the market out as the origin place of the outbreak. That’s because none of the animals there tested positive for the virus.

Most likely, the market was simply the site of an early superspreader event, with one sick person infecting an atypically large number of others. Superspreader events around the world have created clusters of infections that cropped up almost overnight. 

Research suggests the virus was in Italy last fall

italy coronavirus
A COVID-19 patient is transported by nurses inside a biological containment stretcher in the Da Procida Hospital in Salerno, Italy, April 8, 2020.

Italy recorded its first official coronavirus case in Lombardy on February 21. Yet a recent study found coronavirus antibodies in blood samples collected from 23 Italians in September and 27 in October.

“Our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 circulated in Italy earlier than the first official COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Lombardy, even long before the first official reports from the Chinese authorities, casting new light on the onset and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote. (SARS-CoV-2 is the clinical name of the virus.)

A study conducted by Rome’s Department of Environment and Health supports that conclusion: Researchers found the coronavirus’ genetic material in sewage samples from Milan and Turin dating back to December 18, 2019.

doctors coronavirus front line
Nurses embrace at a hospital in Lombardy, Italy, March 15, 2020.

Spain and France also found clues that the virus was circulating in 2019

In May, doctors at a Paris hospital discovered that a patients they’d treated for pneumonia on December 27 had been sick with COVID-19. France didn’t record its first official case until January 24, however.

Barcelona, Spain, COVID-19 coronavirus August 31 2020
People in line for coronavirus tests in Barcelona, Spain, on August 31, 2020.

In Spain, meanwhile, researchers from the University of Barcelona found evidence of the coronavirus in city sewage samples collected in mid-January, six weeks before the country’s first official case. 

Surprisingly, a sewage sample collected on March 12, 2019 also tested positive for traces of the coronavirus. But testing wastewater isn’t a perfect way to detect outbreaks, as Claire Crossan wrote in The Conversation. So it’s possible that March sample had been contaminated during study. 

By December 2019, the virus had reached the US

california beach pier coronavirus oceanside crowd masks
Few people wear masks on a pier in Oceanside, California, June 22, 2020.

Research in the US, too, offers evidence that the virus had gone global before humanity even knew it existed.

The US recorded its first coronavirus case on January 20. But according to one study, the virus had reached the Pacific Northwest at least a month earlier. Blood samples collected by the American Red Cross in nine states, including California, Oregon, and Washington, showed that some Americans had coronavirus antibodies as early as December 13, 2019.

Detroit tests for antibodies
A young resident of Detroit, Michigan, is tested for coronavirus antibodies on April 28, 2020.

Antibodies are an imperfect measure of the outbreak, since some research suggests our immune systems can create antibodies that recognize the new coronavirus in response to some common colds. Antibody tests can also yield false positives.

Yet in the past, scientists successfully used retrospective antibody studies to trace the origins of SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) – both coronaviruses. Virologists found antibodies specific to SARS in civet cats, and antibodies specific to MERS in camels, which is how they determined those to be each virus’ animal progenitor.

Further examination of blood samples taken in 2019 could be the best way to find out when this pandemic really began.

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‘Our family is shattered’: Grief lingers in virus-free Wuhan as life returns to normal

  • Life in Wuhan, China, is largely back to normal as the city claims it’s virus-free.
  • A year ago, Wuhan reported the first case of COVID-19, and residents went into a strict 76-day lockdown.
  • But many families are still grappling with the loss of loved ones, blaming the government for concealing the severity of the outbreak. 
  • Countries around the world have also accused China of misleading the public as they continue to fight the pandemic.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

This is life on the other side of the pandemic. 

Wuhan, China – the city that reported the world’s first COVID-19 case a year ago – claims it’s now virus-free.

Around the city, life is returning to normal, with residents emerging their homes to shop, enjoy nightlife, and even attend pool parties.

“Wuhan has restarted,” Wuhan resident An An said. “Life has returned to the kind of flavor we had before. So everyone living in Wuhan feels at ease.”

Here, the pandemic is history. A new museum exhibition celebrates the city’s triumph over the outbreak. 

One bar even has a craft beer called “Wuhan Stay Strong” commemorating the 76-day lockdown, with labels that peel back to show images of what those long weeks were like.

“We wanted to find a way to let people know our story of what the city and its people endured,” brewery owner Wang Fan said.

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Life is returning to normal in Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 emerged about a year ago.

But the memories of what people endured as Wuhan struggled to contain the coronavirus are still fresh. 

Yang Yuanyin closed his restaurant in January as the city imposed a strict lockdown. He headed to a newly built hospital to cook meals for staff and patients, leaving his family behind.

“My wife and my mother didn’t want me to leave,” Yang, the owner of Yuanyin Jia Restaurant, told Business Insider Today. “I told my wife that you have my savings account, please raise our kid until he becomes an adult in case I don’t come back.”

He did come back and reopen his restaurant after Wuhan lifted its lockdown in April, but recovery was gradual.

“The business was very bad then,” Yang said. “We mainly relied on takeout and regular customers. Very few people would come to the restaurant. In July, the restaurant started to be packed with customers on weekends again.”

Others have had a harder time moving forward.

Zhong Hanneng’s son died from COVID-19 in February. She never got to see him in the hospital – something that still haunts her now.

“I’m always thinking that he suffered a lot,” Zhong said. “Because of the virus, family couldn’t accompany him. He must have been so scared, so unhappy with no family around. I can’t imagine how sad he was. Did he call out ‘Mother’? ‘Father’? I don’t know. We don’t know.”

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Zhong Hanneng and her family are trying to sue the government for concealing the coronavirus outbreak and mishandling the response.

Her family is one of several in Wuhan trying to sue the government for concealing the outbreak and mishandling the response – an accusation that’s been echoed by countries around the world as they continue to battle the pandemic.

A recent report by CNN based on leaked documents from the disease control and prevention center in Hubei province revealed the extent to which China misled the public by underreporting case numbers and death tolls.

The Chinese government has rejected these charges, as well as the lawsuits from families who blame local authorities for the deaths of their loved ones.

“Our family is shattered,” said Zhong. “After this, we can never be happy again.”

While some continue grieving, Wuhan is moving on.

But behind the crowded streets of commuters and schoolchildren, the packed workout sessions, and the bustling night markets, the trauma of thousands of lost lives lingers.

And with China intent on showing that it’s put the pandemic in its past, Wuhan may never know the true extent of its suffering.

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