Nearly two months after news of the novel coronavirus first emerged in China, there is still much that scientists don’t know about the source of the outbreak.
The race to find the virus’s provenance, however, has been made more difficult by the Chinese regime’s lack of transparency, according to experts.
“There are so many questions about the origins of the virus because the Chinese government didn’t provide enough transparency regarding the early investigation of the outbreak,” Sean Lin, a former virology researcher for the U.S. Army, told The Epoch Times.
Chief among these questions is where the outbreak originated.
While Chinese officials have suspected the birthplace of the outbreak to be the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wild animal and seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, recent developments cast doubt on that claim.
A Jan. 24 study by a group of Chinese researchers published in The Lancet medical journal analyzed the first 41 cases of coronavirus patients in Wuhan and found that 14 out of those patients had no link to the seafood market.
Crucially, the researchers could not find an “epidemiological link” between the first patient, who became ill on Dec. 1, 2019, and later patients. That date also contradicts reports from Chinese health authorities, who said the first patient exhibited symptoms on Dec. 8, 2019.
One of the study’s authors later confirmed to the BBC that the first patient was a man in his 70s who was bedridden after suffering a stroke. He didn’t have a connection to the market—a revelation that opens up the possibility that the virus may have spread elsewhere before entering the market.
A recent study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, by a group of researchers affiliated with China’s Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Institute for Brain Research suggested that the coronavirus was introduced from outside the market, then rapidly expanded inside the crowded facility in early December 2019 before spreading to the whole city.
Based on an analysis of the virus’s genome data, the researchers postulated that the virus began spreading from person to person in early December, or possibly even in late November.
While genetic studies may gradually provide more detail on the outbreak’s evolution, the task of tracing the path of the disease has faced challenges because Chinese authorities haven’t released information about which animals were present in the market, nor whether they have tested animal samples from the market or elsewhere in Wuhan.
Such information is critical in identifying the animals that might have carried the virus before it jumped to humans.
Guan Yi, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Hong Kong University, traveled to Wuhan with his team in January in hopes of tracking the animal that was the source of the virus. He criticized Wuhan authorities for disinfecting the market, essentially halting any possible investigation.
“There’s no crime scene,” Guan told Chinese financial magazine Caixin in a Jan. 23 interview.
Lin expressed similar concerns, saying: “The problem is that the Chinese government so far has not shown any testing result of any animal sample collected in Wuhan.
“So you cannot draw a clear understanding of how the bat coronavirus … jumped to humans.”
Bats are thought to be the original host of the virus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2. It’s then thought to have jumped to another animal or animals, called an intermediate host, before jumping to humans. Bats weren’t sold at the Wuhan market.
Palm civets, mammals found in Asia, were the intermediate host of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), an outbreak originating in China in 2002, while camels were the intermediate host of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), an outbreak in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Researchers traced the original hosts to bats in both outbreaks.
The novel coronavirus was found to have 96.2 percent genetic similarity to a coronavirus found in a horseshoe bat in 2013, called RaTG13, in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province—1,000 miles from Wuhan. Interestingly, Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t publish the genome for RaTG13 until Jan. 23 this year.
Yuhong Dong, a viral infectious diseases expert and chief scientific officer at the Swiss-based biotech firm SunRegen Healthcare, told The Epoch Times that such a genetic similarity isn’t enough to justify that RaTG13 is a direct source of SARS-CoV-2, as a similarity of around 99.9 percent is needed to be identified as an immediate ancestor.
Coronaviruses have more than 30,000 RNA nucleic acid bases. Even a genetic difference of only 4 percent means that at least 1,200 bases are different. This difference of 1200 bases is still significant, Dong said.
Recently, scientists at the South China Agricultural University in China’s Guangdong Province announced that SARS-CoV-2 had a 99 percent match to a coronavirus identified in pangolins—suggesting that the scaled animal may have served as an intermediate host.
The team of scientists reviewed more than 1,000 samples and found 70 percent of the pangolins carried viruses from the same family of pathogens as SARS-CoV-2.
However, they haven’t released the study or any data from the testing. They also haven’t disclosed where the pangolins they tested came from, making their claim impossible to verify, Dong said.
Some people have offered a theory that the coronavirus could be a result of genetic engineering or a lab accident, possibilities that Lin and Dong can’t be ruled out at this stage.
Dong says it may be extremely challenging to prove if the virus was engineered, since such a process could be done without leaving any distinctive evidence.
“I haven’t seen a scientific article that can clearly explain its natural origins, its natural reservoir, and its closest predecessor,” Dong added.
The question of whether human action could have led to the virus has drawn considerable attention, with some media and scientists labeling it as a “conspiracy theory.”
Lin says such a label has no place in the scientific inquiry.
“When people question the origin, it doesn’t mean it’s a conspiracy theory. People just don’t know enough about how the virus mutated,” Lin said, adding there are many questions yet to be resolved.
Particular mutations in amino acids of the virus—making it more transmissible to humans—are “unusual in an academic sense,” Fang Chi-tai, a professor at National Taiwan University’s (NTU) College of Public Health, said at a seminar hosted at NTU on Feb. 22, adding that such mutations were unlikely to have formed in nature “in one go.”
“From an academic point of view, it is indeed possible that the amino acids were added to COVID-19 [the disease caused by the novel coronavirus] in the lab by humans,” Fang said, Taiwan News reported.
Other scientists have dismissed the idea, saying the virus came from a natural evolutionary process.
Richard H. Ebright, laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said that based on the genome sequence and properties of the virus, “there is no basis to suspect the virus was engineered.”
But Ebright did leave open the possibility that the virus entered the human population through a laboratory accident, “because the bat coronavirus RaTG13 and closely related bat coronaviruses also are known to have been present in a lab,” he told The Street website, referring to the coronavirus collection at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “The first human infection also could have occurred as a lab accident.”
The Wuhan Institute, located a few miles from the Huanan market, has publicly denied it was the source of the outbreak.
Dong said that she would like to have seen more transparency from the institute, such as disclosures of all viruses it was studying—so outsiders could verify whether it had a connection with the outbreak.
Eva Fu contributed to this report.