The COVID-19 pandemic emerged in the market in Wuhan and is linked to the illegal animal trade

Two studies published on Tuesday, July 26 in the journal Science almost certainly claim that Huanan, the seafood market in Wuhan, is the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and that it is linked to the illegal animal trade.

When press conference hosted by WHO to provide an update on monkeypox, Marburg virus and Covid 19AFP journalist Nina Larson asked WHO executives about the studies published on Tuesday, July 26 in the journal Science who claim that the origin of the pandemic is the market in Wuhan. According to her, this would revive the debate over the theory of a virus that escaped from a laboratory.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, experts have sought to elucidate the mystery of the origin of Covid and whether it is a virus that escaped from a laboratory or came from nature. The Mystery has thickened, as much as the fog maintained by the Chinese authorities.

One of the authors of these studies, Michael Worobey, a virologist at the University of Arizona, published a letter in 2021 in which he called for serious consideration of the hypothesis of a leak from the Wuhan laboratory.

However, after the publication of the research entitled Huanan, Wuhan Seafood Market Is First Epicenter of COVID-19 Pandemiche seems to have radically changed his tone.

Co-author with Dr. Angela Rasmussen – who also contributed to this study – from a column on, a Canadian media outlet, they say: “we can confidently say that the pandemic started in the wholesale seafood market from Huanan to Wuhan, all evidence pointing resoundingly to a zoonotic spillover.”

Huanan, the seafood market in Wuhan, is considered the epicenter of the pandemic.

This study includes a geographic analysis showing that the first cases detected in December 2019 were concentrated in the Wuhan market.

“When we extracted the geographic coordinates of the residential locations of the first known cases from December 2019 and plotted them on a map of Wuhan, they clearly formed a clear cluster with the market at the center,” the two virologists say.

The virus is said to come from the illegal animal trade

The second study is a genomic analysis of the virus. The researchers analyzed samples taken from the market in January 2020 from cages or carts. The positive samples were all in the western part of the market, where live animals were sold.

“Previous findings published in the journal Scientific Reports showed that live animals susceptible to Sars-CoV-2, such as raccoon dogs and red foxes, were sold in four markets in Wuhan before the pandemic. Our team reported that they were present specifically in the Huanan market when the virus began circulating in humans,” Drs Worobey and Rasmussen say in their editorial. They also claim that they collected “other evidence, including commercial and administrative records, which corroborated that illegal sales of live animals were taking place in Huanan at the time”. The authors of the study would have in their hands, in particular, the fines directed by Chinese authorities to animal traffickers.

Virologists found that “In the early days of the pandemic, two genetically distinct variants circulated in the human population. We showed that the two were geographically linked to the market.” This is supported by a Chinese study.

According to them, “SARS-CoV-2 was introduced into the human population by two separate events of zoonotic transmission in the market itself.”

The Drs. Worobey and Rasmussen explain that “zoonotic spillovers happen much more often than people generally realize.” “Often, when a virus is transmitted from an animal to a human, the virus finds itself at a dead end, either because it is unable to replicate effectively after a species jump, or it is not transmitted to another human. SARS-CoV-2, however, has demonstrated the ability to efficiently replicate and transmit between many different species. »

Furthermore, they claim that “in a densely populated city like Wuhan, conditions are ideal for the virus to establish itself in the human population”.

The disturbing nature of the emergence of COVID in Wuhan, which is home to the P-4 laboratory

The authors admit that it is concerning that “of all cities in China, the virus originated in Wuhan, where scientists have carried out extensive research on the bat coronavirus, the closest known being in southern Laos.”

They state, however, that “SARS-CoV-1 occurred under similar circumstances, in another city more than 1,000 kilometers from the nearest bats harboring SARS-related coronaviruses. It initially appeared in food and animal vendors and was soon found to infect masked palm civets, raccoon dogs, and ferret badgers sold in markets in Foshan and Guangzhou.

Scientists admit that “SARS-CoV-2 has not been found in any intermediate species in Huanan, but this is because the affected animals on the market have not been tested.” However, they state that “WIV (Chinese Institute of Virology Editor’s note) investigators found SARS-related coronaviruses in civet cats bred outside of Wuhan in the early 2000s, suggesting that this group of viruses was not ‘(was) confined to remote areas”. from China’.

An evidence base unprecedented in human history

In their editorials, Drs. Worobey and Rasmussen admit that “origin investigations are never quick or easy.” “Evidence is always incomplete, confusing and difficult to access. »

They cite the example of the Ebola virus that “appeared in 1976 and we have not yet identified the exact species of bat responsible for zoonotic spread during this first epidemic, nor since.”

The authors of the research, however, say that “despite the challenges, the evidence base for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is stronger and more conclusive than almost any other emerging virus in the past century.” “It is simply surprising, for example, that we have had access to the original locations of the first 174 known cases of COVID-19 in the world. We’ve never had a space recording like this of another pandemic outbreak in human history. »

Drs Worobey and Rasmussen believe that “the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 originating from anywhere other than the Huanan market is extremely small.” “Our work should end the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 arose from a laboratory. »

“Based on this work, the evidence is clear: the Huanan market was the epicenter of this tragic pandemic and it is virtually certain that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 was linked to the live wildlife trade. otherwise doesn’t understand science or doesn’t want you to understand it”, they conclude.

WHO response

Responding to the AFP journalist’s question, Maria Van Kerkhove confirmed that “two published studies have been available for a few months and these studies have been evaluated, by the WHO secretariat, as well as by the advisory group on the origin of pathogens, this has also been done in all the studies, which are currently published on the possible origin of covid 19”.

According to her, “the most important thing is to see what happened in the markets of Wuhan in China, what is the sequencing, the people who have been in contact with the animals that could have transmitted this virus, we are trying to trace the route of the animals in this market, know which farms they could come from.”

for Dr. Van Kerhove, this study “has given us additional information about what happened at the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s not enough.” “We need to do additional studies, in China and elsewhere, to really understand the early stages of this pandemic. Without these serological studies, from the farms of origin, from the market, without this tracking, we still have questions, and unanswered questions”.

The Doctor. Mike Ryan confirmed that “this is a scientific work in progress and each additional piece of information adds to our big picture. This allows us to lean towards one or the other hypothesis, but all hypotheses remain on the table, until we can prove that one or the other is the explanation.”

Upon reading this research, however, we better understand the comments made by Dr. Ryan during the Covid19 update hosted by the WHO on Tuesday, July 26. “What we’re seeing is a consequence of a lack of investment in health systems, a consequence of a careless approach to managing our environment, to the way we raise animals and move around the world,” he said of the pandemics.

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