First known Covid case was vendor at Wuhan market, scientist claims

The findings, which was published in the prominent journal Science on Thursday, would reignite, but not settle, the argument over whether the epidemic began with a spillover from wildlife sold at markets, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab, or some other mechanism.

Carl Zimmer, Benjamin Mueller, and Chris Buckley wrote the script.

According to a scientist who studied public descriptions of early Covid-19 cases in China, an authoritative World Health Organization investigation likely got the pandemic’s early timing wrong. According to the new research, the first known coronavirus sufferer was a vendor in a major Wuhan livestock market, not an accountant who lived hundreds of kilometres away.

The findings, which was published in the prominent journal Science on Thursday, would reignite, but not settle, the argument over whether the epidemic began with a spillover from wildlife sold at markets, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab, or some other mechanism. The search for the cause of the world’s worst public health disaster in a century has sparked global rivalries, with little fresh facts emerging in recent months to settle the debate.

By combing through what had already been made public in medical journals, as well as video interviews in a Chinese news outlet with people believed to have the first two documented infections, the scientist, Michael Worobey, a leading expert in tracing the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona, discovered timeline discrepancies.

According to Worobey, the vendor’s linkages to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as well as a fresh investigation of the market’s relationships to the early hospitalised cases, strongly suggest that the pandemic started there.

“Half of the early cases in this city of 11 million people are linked to a place the size of a soccer field,” Worobey added. “If the outbreak didn’t start at the market, it becomes very difficult to explain that pattern.”

Worobey’s detective work was good, according to several specialists, including one of the WHO’s pandemic investigators, and the first recorded case of Covid was most likely a seafood vendor.

However, some of them also stated that the evidence was insufficient to definitively answer the bigger question of how the pandemic started. They speculated that the virus infected a “patient zero” before infecting the vendor and then reaching critical mass before spreading extensively in the market. Studies of alterations in the virus’s genome, including one by Worobey, imply that the first infection occurred in mid-November 2019, weeks before the vendor became ill.

Jesse Bloom, a virus expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, stated, “I don’t disagree with the analysis.” “However, I disagree that any of the data is robust or complete enough to establish anything with certainty, save from the fact that the Huanan Seafood Market was certainly a superspreading event.”

Bloom also pointed out that this was not the first time the WHO study, which was co-authored by Chinese academics, had been found to have errors, such as those addressing early patients’ possible market connections.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling that there are inconsistencies regarding when this transpired in all of these cases,” he said.

‘There’s a Mistake There,’ says the narrator.
Doctors at various Wuhan hospitals began to observe unusual cases of pneumonia in persons who worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a dark and poorly ventilated place where seafood, poultry, pork, and wild animals were sold, toward the end of December 2019. Hospitals were advised on Dec. 30 to report any new cases related to the market by public health officials.

Fearing a repeat of the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Chinese livestock markets, Chinese officials ordered the Huanan market to shutdown, and Wuhan police officers did so on January 1, 2020. Despite these precautions, additional cases continued to emerge in Wuhan.

On Jan. 11, 2020, Wuhan authorities said that cases had began on Dec. 8. They identified the first sufferer as a Wuhan resident with the surname Chen, who became ill on December 8 and had no connection to the market, in February.

The originally large percentage of illnesses related to the market was thought by Chinese officials and some outside specialists to be a statistical anomaly known as ascertainment bias. They reasoned that officials’ Dec. 30 call for doctors to disclose market-related diseases may have caused them to ignore cases with no such ties.

According to China Global Television Network, Gao Fu, director of China’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in May 2020, “At first, we believed that the seafood market might carry the novel coronavirus.” “However, it appears that the market is one of the casualties.”

By the spring of 2020, senior Trump administration officials were supporting a different theory for the pandemic’s origin: that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located about 8 miles from the Huanan market and across the Yangtze River.

In January of this year, WHO-selected experts travelled to China and spoke with an accountant who had purportedly had symptoms on December 8. He was reported as the first known case in their influential March 2021 article.

However, Peter Daszak, an EcoHealth Alliance disease ecologist who was part of the WHO team, said Worobey’s analysis convinced him that they were mistaken.

Daszak stated, “That December 8th date was a mistake.”

According to the accountant, the WHO team never asked him when his symptoms began. Instead, doctors at Hubei Xinhua Hospital, who had dealt with other early cases but not Chen, gave them the Dec. 8 date. “So that’s where the error is,” Daszak explained.

The interview was a dead end for the WHO experts, according to Daszak, because the accountant had no apparent ties to an animal market, lab, or mass gathering. He told them he enjoyed surfing the internet and jogging, and that he did not travel frequently. Daszak described him as “as vanilla as you can get.”

If the seafood vendor had been identified as the first known case, Daszak believes the researchers would have investigated topics like what stall she worked in and where her products came from more vigorously.

Daszak has been one of the most vocal opponents of the lab-leak idea this year. For scientific cooperation with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, he and his company, EcoHealth Alliance, have come under fire. The National Institutes of Health declared last month that EcoHealth had violated the terms of its contract to study coronaviruses in bats.

The WHO scientists determined in their assessment that the virus was most likely conveyed to people by animal spillage, but they were unable to confirm that the Huanan market was the source. A lab leak, on the other hand, they claimed was “very implausible.”

The study has been chastised for a number of flaws and mistakes. In July, the Washington Post reported that the report identified the erroneous virus samples for several early patients, including the first recognised case, and incorrectly linked the first familial cluster of infections to the Huanan market. The WHO agreed to correct the inaccuracies, however they are still visible in the report on the WHO’s website. (The organisation stated that it will inquire as to whether and how the report’s authors would address the errors.)