Does new research by a University of Utah virologist and others into the origins of COVID-19 rule out, once and for all, the theory that the virus came from a Chinese laboratory?
“The short answer to that is yes,” Stephen Goldstein, a virologist and postdoctoral researcher at the U. School of Medicine, told reporters during a virtual news conference Tuesday to announce the publication of a study he co-authored in Science.
“The only place that this virus was circulating in December 2019 is the area immediately surrounding the Huanan market, which is quite a distance away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that’s been suspected as the source,” he said, noting there were initially two separate versions of the virus.
That’s not the single strain “you might expect if a lab worker was infected and then brought the virus to somewhere else in the city” of Wuhan, Goldstein said. Given that some 75% of new such infections don’t spread, he said to get two versions of the virus spreading suggested there were at least eight at the start.
The study concluded the emergence of COVID-19 could likely be traced to one or more of the wet market’s 10 to 15 stalls that sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deers), with the virus having been found on animal cages, carts and drainage grates there.
And even the first cases with no direct connection to the area of the market selling live animals ended up being in nearby neighborhoods located up to four times closer to that source than cases that were linked to the stall, meaning the market was the only place the virus was circulating early on, Goldstein said.
The findings will not likely satisfy some, he acknowledged.
“We expect pushback. I think the best thing we can do is to publish in the scientific literature, following extremely rigorous peer review,” Goldstein said, adding that was done with both the paper he co-authored and a companion study, after releasing the findings earlier this year.
The virologist said he’s “certainly under no illusion that we’re going to completely stamp out” what he called “competing narratives,” which include unproven theories that COVID-19 escaped from the Wuhan Institute, where some have even claimed it was being developed by the Chinese government as a bioweapon.
There’s “no question” bats are the ultimate source of the virus, Goldstein said, blaming the live animal trade bringing infected animals from isolated rural areas to crowded urban markets for the “species jumps” that sparked the spread. He called for better monitoring to keep infected animals out of the markets.
The transformation of the initial handful of infections at the market into a global pandemic is “a little surprising but not shocking,” he said, given that by late January 2020 it was clear COVID-19 could not be contained, as similar viruses had previously been.
The earliest cases were identified in November 2019, Goldstein said, with the first documented U.S. case identified in mid-January 2020 in someone on the West Coast who had traveled to Wuhan, while the other variant of the then-new coronavirus spread from Europe to the East Coast, largely in New York City, later that month.
It’s not yet entirely clear why this coronavirus was more transmissible than previous coronaviruses that also came from bats as well as rodents, he said, given that “it’s pretty clear the ability to infect human cells is not especially rare.”