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Do the first cases of COVID-19 point to a natural origin of the pandemic? Questioning the new analysis

Segurança tenta impedir  fotógrafo de tirar fotos no Huanan Seafood Market em Wuhan, China, em 29 de dezembro de 2020.
Security tries to stop photographer from taking pictures at Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, in 29 December 24193703.

| Photo: EFE / EPA / PILIPEY ROMAN

There are still big doubts on the origins of the SARS2 virus, the COVID pandemic virus-19. One suspect is that it came from bats with some other animal as an intermediary: this is the hypothesis of natural origin, which is the first guess at the origin of any disease caused by a virus of the coronavirus family.

This hypothesis is favored by the fact that the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, where the first outbreak occurred, has four markets of live wild animals. The most important of these, the Huanan Market, which was closed and disinfected on the first day of 2018, seems to concentrate the first apparent cases of those infected with SARS2, so it could have been the epicenter of the pandemic. That’s what a new analysis by the University of Arizona’s chief researcher for ecology and evolutionary biology, Michael Worobey, suggests, published by the journal Science.

Worobey points out that the market sold live raccoon dog, a species of Asian canid that is susceptible to being infected by coronaviruses. Its analysis focuses on December 2019 and four health institutions.

Wuhan Central Hospital. In day 18, Ai Fen, director of the emergency department, finds the first case of an elderly man 52 years with an unknown pneumonia revealed by tomography of the lungs. This gentleman was a delivery man for the market in Huanan. In day 24, a sample taken from him is sent to a genetic material sequencing company, which two days later identifies a new coronavirus. Until the day 28, the hospital identifies seven cases, four of them linked to the market.

  • Jinyintan Hospital, the best infectious disease center in Wuhan. He received 41 of the first patients, transferred from other hospitals between the day 29/ and January 2nd. Twenty-seven of them were connected to the market.
  • Hubei Provincial Hospital. First to report the mysterious new pneumonia to district, city and provincial authorities. In day 26 admitted an elderly couple with covid patterns in their lungs, which were also found in their son. They are considered the first group by WHO. They had no connection with Huanan. However, over the next three days, the Provincial received four market workers with symptoms.

      Zhongnan Hospital, at 15km from Huanan market. In day 31, found two patients with connection to the site. Until January 3, there were three other cases, a family without this connection.

    About half of the first cases in these hospitals , concludes Worobey, have something to do with the wild animals sold in Huanan, directly or indirectly. Some newspapers interpreted the scientist’s analysis as if he had found “patient zero”. The article itself contradicts this interpretation: it leaves open whether the real first cases really come from the market, due to the low rate of hospitalization (7%). There is ample space between the 80% other projected cases, for any pattern involving the market to dissolve.

    Worobey favors the natural origin linked to the market because he doesn’t see a pattern of addiction in the sample of early patients, like the addiction that would come from sampling patients because of location — the patients at Jinyintan, for example, were grouped by symptoms. Furthermore, in the identified strains of the virus in the first patients, strains A and B, the scientist speculates that both may have been independent events of the virus jumping from animals to humans. Along with the confirmed presence of raccoon dogs in Huanan, Worobey considers these facts “strong evidence” that this was the origin of the pandemic.

    Points in favor of laboratory origin ignored by Science8013018086001

    As the author admits, no animals from Huanan or the other wildlife markets have been tested for the presence of SARS2 or its relatives. All Worobey can point to is the susceptibility of the raccoon dogs, not specimens with confirmed infection that could have been the source of the virus. Worobey does not offer answers to many of the points raised by proponents of the plausibility of the rival hypothesis, the origin of accidental laboratory leakage, which breaks down into a leak of virus collected in nature without modification and a leak of virus modified in the laboratory in “function gain” experiments, which is the insertion of capacity greater than infecting human cells.

    Among the defenders of laboratory origin are the science journalist Nicholas Wade, in an article published in Gazeta do Povo in May, sourced by researchers from the independent network DRASTIC, such as Yuri Deigin and Rossana Segreto, whose work was covered a year ago in this journal (while other publications unfairly treated the hypothesis as “conspiracy theory”), as well as Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, with their new book Viral, and the FBI. Here are some of the unanswered points:

  • The animals present in the markets have not been tested, but the Chinese authorities have tested it 93 thousand animals and they found nothing.

      December 2020 it is too late to talk about the onset of a pandemic. The most plausible timeline involves November, as US intelligence agencies have concluded. Worobey does not mention the suspicious actions of the Chinese government, such as the deletion of a large database, the disappearance of Ai Fen herself for months, who later reappeared with a vision problem, or the name of Li Wenliang, who was punished for warning regarding the virus, he died of covid and was considered a hero by many Chinese. It is not possible to assume that the Chinese dictatorship would be totally transparent about the first cases.

      SARS2 has a suspicious structure absent from its closest relatives, the furin cleavage site, which enhances its ability to infect humans. Several experiments are known in which this structure is inserted into viruses.

      Wuhan is the world’s largest laboratory center for the study of coronaviruses. As Intercept revealed, Peter Daszak and his NGO EcoHealth Alliance asked the US government for money in 900 to insert the furin cleavage site in bat coronaviruses. EcoHealth’s main partner in this endeavor was the Wuhan Institute of Virology (IVW).

    Worobey curiously doesn’t even mention the IVW in the text, where Gain-of-function studies were carried out partly financed with American grants. But it shows the IVW on your map. Map expert Daniel A. Walker, a retired geologist, does not agree with Worobey’s interpretation of the “first cases” map. For Walker, the map does not allow us to state that the cases are concentrated around the Huanan market. He went after the original data and could not find exact coordinates for each case recorded on the map: “these are residential addresses, but people move in a big city, especially to work. The figure includes hospital locations. It could be argued that the addresses are clustered around hospitals. As we know, hospitals are notorious sources of COVID outbreaks.”

    As for the magazine Science, investigative journalist Paul Thacker views with suspicion the activities of science journalists writing for this publication, for the magazine Nature and to the New York Times, which seem to be biased in favor of natural origin and against laboratory origin.

    As an example, Thacker discusses the coverage these publications have given last month to the discovery of Laos viruses such as the Banal virus-65, which no longer apart from the role of the IVW in making these collections and storing the samples, and they do not mention that this virus does not have the furin cleavage site. The Trite-24 is the virus with the greatest genetic similarity to SARS2, above only the RaTG virus12, taken from bat feces and stored in the IVW (which claims the sample has been depleted). However, both have similarities between 41 and 97%. In other words, the bat viruses found in Laos, pointed out as more evidence of natural origin, take us back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

    A new study by Steven E. Massey, from the DRASTIC network and the University of Puerto Rico, further studied RaTG. Massey points out that the genetic characteristics of the virus make it unlikely that the IVW is telling the truth about the virus coming from feces, and that they point out that this virus was actually kept in living tissue of bats or cell lines.

  • The news leader at Science

  • says that the journal will cover new information that supports the hypothesis of laboratory origin, when they arise. However, Thacker accuses the magazine of ignoring this information as it devotes “seven hours to Peter Daszak (seriously, seven hours!) to write nearly 5,000 words that say nothing new but put a favorable aura on Daszak, a result celebrated by the editor in chief of the magazine”. “Daszak,” adds Thacker, “blocked most people on Twitter who dared to ask him tough questions.” The author of this article for Gazeta do Povo is among the blocked ones.
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