Wet Market? Weapon? Laboratory? Where and When DID Covid-19 start?

The question of how the outbreak of Covid-19 started could end up changing the balance of world politics. It is that big. This page reviews the various origin stories, and I will update this pages if more come to light.

Updates and Follow-up: This was posed in June 2020, But I am collecting updates with a view to a follow up

No, it did not start in a wet market in December.

Chinese authorities originally reported that the first coronavirus case was on 31 December and many of the first cases of the pneumonia-like infection were immediately connected to a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province.

BBC

The key word here is ‘originally’. We now know there were cases well before there the December cluster in the wet market. The was a cluster in the wet market which played a role in the accelerating the early spread of the virus, but was not the origin of the virus.

However, a study, by Chinese researchers published in the Lancet medical journal, claimed the first person to be diagnosed with Covid-19, was on 1 December 2019 (a lot of earlier) and that person had “no contact” with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

BBC

Many different clusters have accelerated the spread of Covid-19, ranging from those on cruise ships, to a cluster in a school which played are major role in increasing early cases in New Zealand. But being the centre of a cluster does not make schools, cruise ships or even wet markets the original source of the Sars-COV2 virus that causes the disease Covid-19. Although since proved wrong, that first ‘origin’ story of a wet market has become part of popular culture. Even if innocent in this case, it does seem logical to blame wet markets as ‘asking for trouble’ release was about

The earliest case identified linked to a wet market, occurred well after other cases with no know link to a wet market. Wet markets do seem like a location where there is a risk of virus infections passing from animals to humans, but it is also likely catching wild animals, for sale in any market wet or otherwise, or for any other purpose, would present an even greater risk than the wet market itself. There is no ‘smoking gun’ allowing blame on a market, although it is likely some activity which results in interaction with animals in the wild would have played a key role in the virus arriving in humans.

Wet markets, such as the one in Wuhan at one time thought to have a link to the origin of the virus, do include unsightly and to at least some cruel, treatment of animals, but Covid-19 has not provided the justification for closing these markets or even banning their most unsavoury elements. Well…not at this time.

When were the Earliest Cases?

As more complete data becomes available, it usually shows Covid-19 arrived earlier then first thought. For example, initially it was thought the first case in the US was a case in Washington in late February, but more complete data later revealed that there were deaths from the disease as early as February 2nd in California. Given most people infected with the virus are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, modelling suggests the virus likely arrived in the US during 2019.

Again, in China:

However, a study, by Chinese researchers published in the Lancet medical journal, claimed the first person to be diagnosed with Covid-19, was on 1 December 2019 (a lot of earlier) and that person had “no contact” with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

BBC

But then:

The report, in the South China Morning Post, said Chinese authorities had identified at least 266 people who contracted the virus last year and who came under medical surveillance, and the earliest case was 17 November – weeks before authorities announced the emergence of the new virus.

The Guardian, March 13

There is now evidence from France points to X-Rays taken on 16th and 18th of November, suggesting there was already a case in France by mid November. Again, for the disease to have reached the point to be evident from X-rays, suggests an advanced case, who would have needed to be infected around two weeks earlier. This means by mid November, there were already cases in both China and Europe, which means there had to be at least one case at least one month earlier.

The more we learn, the earlier the cases that are discovered. We can be confident there was at least one case as early as October, but again, there could have been cases significantly earlier again.

A biological weapon?

Is the most Machiavellian scenario, that this virus was deliberately released as a biological weapon, possible? In short ‘no’, it is not possible.

The two countries who have had the virus research centres are the US and China. Clearly, if the US was behind this, it backfired. No. In reality, proposed villain for this scenario is China. The released in China first could be explained as away as subterfuge to deflect suspicion. The argument has to propose that while the virus would come to China eventually anyway and they would have deaths as would everyone else, being faced with dealing with the very first outbreak would position China as a victim and clearly it is not logical for them to infect themselves first, so by being illogical and infecting themselves first they avoid suspicion. Even though battling the outbreak first, China has had one of the lowest deaths per capita in the world. In the end, this argument goes round in circles and for China proves neither guilt nor innocence.

The real problem with any ‘deliberate release’ theory, is that requires extensive real world trials to determine exactly how deadly a virus of this nature will be. Even with vaccines that are crippled versions of a virus, it takes months and often years of extensive trials to determine if the vaccine is safe. Determining a virus is actually just the right level of deadly would be far more difficult, get it wrong and you wipe out your own army. Running the necessary trials would take years, and doing so without word getting out, even in a totalitarian state such as China, would be impossible. International virologists often visit the viral research centre in Wuhan.

Biological weapons have been pursued in the past by various nations, but a pandemic virus that infects the entire world and potentially kills your own citizens does not make sense.

Was the Virus Engineered In A Lab?

How about the theory that the virus accidentally rather than deliberately released? The fact that it would not have been feasible to secretly conduct the years of testing needed to predict the exact outcome of a pandemic causing virus, does not rule out the virus being engineered either as part of a biological weapons project, or even a well meaning disease research program, and the escaping the laboratory.

Medical research is possible, but frankly the weapons research idea is crazy. The Sars-Cov2 virus is just not suitable as a biological weapon. As a biological weapon, a pandemic causing virus that leaves most people asymptomatic is not the area of research, and all evidence points to the Wuhan Institute of Virology being purely researching diseases. For disease research, the Sars-Cov2 virus is exactly the type of virus to study. However, the virus has none of markers of a human engineered virus, and to research disease there is no reason to try and hide those markers even if it was possible.

The virus is exactly the type of virus to be studied at the Wuhan Institute, but all evidence goes against the virus being created in the lab at the institute, and the scientific consensus supports the virus does not have the characteristics expected of an engineered virus.

The scientific consensus rejecting the virus being engineered is almost unanimous. In a letter to Nature in March, a team in California led by microbiology professor Kristian Andersen said “the genetic data irrefutably shows that [Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone” – in other words spliced sections of another known virus.

Far more likely, they suggested, was that the virus emerged naturally and became stronger through natural selection. “We propose two scenarios that can plausibly explain the origin of Sars-CoV-2: natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic [animal to human] transfer; and natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”

The Guardian

Some have concluded with similar viruses was already being studied in the Wuhan Virus Institute, only a small genetic change was required to produce Sar-Cov-2.

the SARS-CoV-2 has a 96.3 percent genetic similarity with CoV RaTG13, which was collected from a sample in a bat in Yunnan in 2013

news-medical.net

Note that humans and chimpanzees have a 99 percent genetic similarity. So the difference of 3.7 percent, almost four times greater than the difference between chimps and humans, is quite significant.

The same article also notes there is a similarity with a virus in Malayan pangolins, that had not been researched in Wuhan. So of the closest relatives known to the Sars-CoV-2 virus, only one was researched in Wuhan. Not exactly a smoking gun.

Accidental Release from the Wuhan Virus Institute?

This is possible, and cannot be ruled out.

Furthermore, the notion that SARS-CoV-2 was genetically engineered is pure conspiracy, experts told Live Science, but it’s still impossible to rule out the notion that Chinese scientists were studying a naturally-occurring coronavirus that subsequently “escaped” from the lab

livescience

Apparently intelligence sources have rated this at a probability of around 5%. Not insignificant odds when the damage caused is considered. Imagine the negligence claim!

Nor does escaping from a lab mean that such an escape started the outbreak. There is no record of any outbreak every escaping following being discovered by researchers, partially because at the discovery stage involves only the most senior researchers. However, the study of viruses that are already well known often involves a wider range of staff and has been known to result in infections by lab staff in the past. Note that even in these cases where the infections were of a virus already known to be dangerous, the infections of lab staff were not kept secret.

Just because escape from a lab cannot be ruled out, does make it definitely true.

The Alternative: Bats and Nature.

So why are bats (see ‘bat woman’) so often to blame for serious viruses? Simplistically, the extreme exertion of flight exposes bats to self damaging auto-immune responses. Bats have evolved a unique immune system as result, which can protect bats against viruses, while still allowing the viruses to continue to live within host bats. This allows viruses to evolve within bats far more than within any other animal, and thus results in bats providing the greatest source of new viruses.

Sometimes viruses, like Ebola, that can exist in bats without health consequences for the bats, can migrate directly to humans with serious consequences for the humans. While Ebola can be caught directly from bats, other diseases have involved another intermediary host where the virus further evolves before humans become infected. The original SARS is believed to have been contracted from civet cats, MERS from Camels although originating in bats in the distant past, while bird flu and swine flu most likely originated in birds, but with pigs as an intermediary host in the case of swine flu.

Normally each time a virus passes from one species to another, the virus will initially evolve more rapidly to adapt to the new host.

Significantly, Sars-CoV-2 has not been observed to evolve since first being detected, suggesting at the time it was first detected they may have already been one or two months of transmission in humans. This would also put the original infection date back to a time of year prior to bats hibernating.

However analysis of the variations of the virus suggests a more recent common ancestor than the date arrived at from calculating based on adaption to human hosts.

Reconciling these two dates, suggests that the outbreak did not start until one or two months after humans were first infected. This would be consistent with a low number of people initially infected in a rural environment with low spread, prior to the virus reaching an urban environment and the outbreak starting.

OK: So why is China so defensive?

Being so determined to avoid investigation makes China appear guilty. The question becomes “guilty of what?”. The options include:

  • the virus was created in the lab as part of a research project
  • the virus was isolated in a lab but was not contained and thus resulted in the outbreak
  • China deliberately destroyed evidence of early cases of Covid-19 from even earlier than has become widely known, resulting in an increased death toll world wide

Which one? In the end most are confident lack of transparency in the early phases of the outbreak made the situation worse. In fact, it is possible that an earlier response from China when cases number were low could have prevented the pandemic.

Conclusion

There are still many possible scenarios as to exactly how the virus began. The saga has not yet concluded.

With no actual conclusion, I am going to draw what I sees as the most likely conclusion. Unusual for these pages, as normally the conclusion full follows from the thought process, but here goes. I believe the virus started as a result of contact between animals in the wild and humans in China around August 2019 and was brought to a population area in around late September early October. This scenario fits will all known data, but largely rules out ‘case 0’ being the result infection from the virus institute, as that would have resulted in infection in environment with immediate spread.

I believe China clearly tried to cover up initial cases, and may have even been possible with early action to prevent the pandemic.

Perhaps in time the answer will be known for certain, but what is taken as ‘certain’ in most minds at this point is the virus evolved naturally.

Updates & Follow-up.

The International Enquiry: Jan 2021.

The United States and Australia have led the charge in criticizing China’s handling of the initial stages of the pandemic, accusing Beijing of downplaying its severity and preventing an effective response until too late.

WHO team blocked from entering China to study origins of coronavirus, Jan 6th 2021.

Back to the Lab Theory: June 2021.

One year after this exploration was first posted, and there is little extra data revealed, but there is more support from the escaped from a lab theory. China remains extremely defensive, but in the US and elsewhere, there is now far more voices suggesting the virus may have escaped from a lab.

However many of these new voices, such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News, have a few key points wrong.

  1. Proving the virus did not originate in a wet market (and it has long been clear it did not start in a wet market in December), does not prove the outbreak started due to an escape from a lab.
  2. Escape from a lab, does not mean deliberate or intentional escape, and vice versa. The very short grab used by Tucker Carlson made me uncertain about that quote by Jamie Metzl being out of context, but is just that he also had other things to say, with which Carlson, may not have agreed.
  3. Even if the virus did escape from a lab, that does not at all mean the virus was engineered in a lab. Tucker Carlson quotes people who say the virus evolved naturally, and says they are saying it did not escape from a lab. This is just wrong, because it could have escaped from a lab even if it evolved naturally. There seems to be significant evidence the virus was not engineered in a lab, but that does not mean it could not have escaped from a lab.
  4. There may be some evidence, as stated by Tucker Carlson, that the virus was already in humans, and deadly, before being collected by the Wuhan lab. Again, even if the virus did already exist before getting to a lab, that does not mean being collected by the lab did not play a role in the virus becoming a pandemic. It does however suggest that escape from a lab or not, there was always some risk of the virus spreading, as people may have died even before being collect by a lab team.

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