Ein Virus treibt die Welt vor sich her. Ist es tatsächlich auf natürlichem Weg übertragen worden? Oder etwa doch aus einem Hochsicherheitslabor in Wuhan entwichen? Die drängende Frage nach dem Ursprung der Pandemie wird durch den Machtkampf zwischen den USA und China massiv erschwert.
Marcel Gyr, Text; Anja Lemcke, Illustrationen
16.04.2021, 05.30 Uhr
Or was it a laboratory accident after all? The riddle surrounding the outbreak of the corona pandemic
A virus is driving the world before it. Was it actually transmitted naturally? Or escaped from a high-security laboratory in Wuhan after all? The pressing question of the origin of the pandemic is made massively more difficult by the power struggle between the USA and China.
Shi Zhengli was at a symposium in Shanghai when her mobile phone rang in the early evening of December 30, 2019. At the other end is her boss, the director of the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. Whatever Shi Zhengli is doing, says the boss, she should leave everything where it is. In two hospitals in Wuhan there is an accumulation of patients who suffer from atypical pneumonia. There is a suspicion that a new corona virus is in circulation. A little later Shi Zhengli gets on the night train to Wuhan.
The 56-year-old virologist is known in specialist circles as the “bat woman”, the woman who hunts bats in the wilderness of southern China as part of her research. For years she has crossed the subtropical provinces of southern China on foot for hours, climbed into damp and smelly caves in search of a very specific virus: the one that triggered Sars in Southeast Asia in 2002, the first corona virus that was really dangerous to humans could.
For a few months, Sars startled humanity. The mortality rate was 10 percent, which is significantly higher than today’s pandemic – then the spook was over. But they wanted to be better prepared for the next outbreak of a corona virus. And they tried to find out how the virus got to humans.
All that was known was that the Sars virus came from a bat, but not from which species. It was soon possible to determine the so-called intermediate host that is needed for transmission to humans. It was a civet cat that had transmitted the Sars virus at a wildlife market in the Chinese province of Guangdong.
It would take more than ten years for Shi Zhengli and her team to finally solve the puzzle. In a cave near Kunming, they found the much sought-after coronavirus in excrement samples from a bat belonging to the genus horseshoe bat. It was 97 percent identical to that in the civet. The path from wilderness to humans was traced, Shi Zhengli reaped the scientific merits.
During her years of hunting down the origin of the Sars virus, Shi Zhengli built a huge collection of coronaviruses. She experiments with some of them: She assembles two viruses with different properties to form a chimera, creating artificial hybrid beings. The idea is to modify viruses in such a way that they become more contagious to humans and would lead to more deaths.
That sounds horrible, but there is good intent behind it. This type of research is known as “gain of function”, which can be translated as “increase in effect”. The researchers try to be one step ahead of nature. The experiments are carried out in a high-security laboratory in the middle of the 11 million metropolis of Wuhan. The aim is to create a mutation that might later develop naturally. In this way, the researchers hope to gain a head start in the development of vaccines or drugs in view of the outbreak of a new virus.
The Institute of Virology in Wuhan is one of the world’s leading institutions in “gain of function” research. It was also involved in the development of the antiviral agent Remdesivir, which is currently used in the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
On the night train from Shanghai to Wuhan on December 30, 2019, Shi Zhengli became pensive. Sooner or later she expected the outbreak of a new corona virus. But she expected him in a southern province, like back then with Sars: in Guangdong, Guangxi or Yunnan – where a real reservoir of coronavirus nests in bats. She is surprised that it should have happened in Wuhan of all places, more than a thousand kilometers to the northeast.
And Shi Zhengli asks himself a question that will haunt the whole world in the months that follow: “Could the virus come from our laboratory?”
She will later tell a journalist for Scientific American magazine about it. Also about how she did not let the question sleep for many nights. How she searched the databases of her laboratory for days, went through all the experiments again, even searched the hazardous waste for residues. Until she could be sure: none of the viruses in her laboratory matched those of the patients in the hospitals in Wuhan – so the virus did not come from her laboratory.
If Shi Zhengli thought that was the end of the matter, she was wrong.
It is true that the laboratory accident hypothesis still has the reputation of a conspiracy theory that primarily serves the purpose of damaging China’s reputation. The American President Donald Trump exploited them for himself with his slogan of the “Chinese virus”. But the Biden government also insists today not to rule out a laboratory accident as a possible cause of the pandemic. And recently Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization (WHO), campaigned for further clarifications. He, of all people, has repeatedly praised China since the beginning of the pandemic.
In any case, the suspicion persists that the virus, to which almost 3 million people have now succumbed, leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. What’s behind it?
A first suspicion
A few days after the outbreak of the new corona virus, Matt Pottinger was briefed by the head of the American health authority in the United States. The Chinese counterpart told him on January 3, 2020 on the phone about an accumulation of strange lung diseases in Wuhan. Pottinger, 47, head of the Asia office on President Trump’s security staff, is instantly electrified. Based on his relevant experience with China, he has dark suspicions: The virus could have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan as a result of an accident.
As a China correspondent, Pottinger reported on the Sars outbreak in 2003 for the Wall Street Journal. He overheard the Chinese authorities covering up the accumulation of dangerous lung diseases for months. When the WHO was finally allowed to get an idea of the extent of the epidemic in Beijing, the patients had allegedly been brought from the hospital to the hotel beforehand.
Since then, Pottinger, who speaks fluent Mandarin, has harbored an abysmal distrust of China’s all-powerful Communist Party. As soon as he heard of the heaped hospital admissions in Wuhan, he immediately scoured the Internet, where the reports are already rolling over on Chinese platforms. There is talk of overcrowded hospitals and crematoria, of overstrained staff and desperate relatives.
Pottinger suspects the worst. He contacts Chinese doctors whom he knows from his time as a correspondent. The old acquaintances warn him urgently. The virus is spreading extremely quickly, and it will certainly soon rage outside of China as well.
The “New Yorker” will later report on Pottinger’s conversation with one of the doctors: “Is it as bad as it was back then with Sars?” He asks. “Forget Sars – it’s more like 1918.” After the end of the First World War, the Spanish flu raged around the globe in waves. Estimates of the number of deaths range from 20 million to 100 million people.
After the phone calls, Pottinger advocates a ban on flights from China as soon as possible. Thousands of passengers reach the USA every day on this route, and the floodgates for the virus are wide open. But he is not heard from Trump. The president is annoyed by the reports about the virus from China, he already has enough other problems to grapple with.
He had started the year with a bang. In Baghdad he had Kassem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, killed. Since then, the US has had to expect retaliation at any time. In addition, Trump is aiming for a new trade agreement with China. It would be inconvenient for him to burden the ongoing negotiations with any blame.
But the danger is getting closer. On January 20, the US reports the first death from the new coronavirus. It is a 35-year-old man who was previously on a trip in Wuhan. The number of deaths rises to nine worldwide.
Trump travels to Switzerland, to the World Economic Forum in Davos. In his speech on January 22nd, he tried to calm the minds. «Our health authority is doing an excellent job. We are well prepared, and I think China is well prepared too. ” When a journalist inquires about the first corona death in the USA, he appeases. “It is someone who came from China – everything will be fine.”
On January 30th, Trump makes a U-turn. He imposed an immediate ban on entry from China – several weeks after Pottinger’s first intervention. It is triggered by the first person-to-person contagion in the United States. But the China specialist Pottinger wants more. He is vehemently committed to putting pressure on the Chinese government. It should finally create transparency with regard to the question of how the uncontrolled outbreak of the virus came about.
Pottinger tirelessly rattles off his contacts in the secret services. He wants to know if there is any evidence of a laboratory accident. But they don’t find anything that would reinforce his suspicions. That doesn’t stop him from urging the administration to use the term “Wuhan virus” in their statements in the future. Pottinger wants to anticipate a possible tactic by China to disguise the origin of the virus. He gets through to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but not to the President.
Pottinger quit his job as a correspondent at the age of 32 and joined the army. For the military intelligence service he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then Trump’s first security advisor, Michael Flynn, appointed him to the security staff. Flynn stumbled upon undeclared contacts to Russia after just a month. Pottinger stayed and was supposed to survive five other security advisors, in the end he was promoted to deputy. He resigned only a few days before the end of his term of office – of his own accord, in protest against Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol.
While the virus meanders around the world almost unchecked, Trump is still working on a new trade deal with China. In January he even described Xi Jinping as a “very, very good friend”, and at the beginning of March he praised the Chinese president for doing an excellent job in dealing with the pandemic.
That changed abruptly when the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, posted a disturbing tweet on his English-language Twitter account on March 12, 2020. It could have been the US that brought the epidemic to Wuhan, writes Zhao. «Be transparent! Make your data public! The US owes us an explanation! “
In his tweet, the Chinese government spokesman refers to an obscure blog. There it says that American participants smuggled the new virus into Wuhan on the occasion of the World Military Games in October 2019 – not China, but the USA caused the pandemic. «When does the ‘patient zero’ date in the USA? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? », Zhao Lijian poked on the next day.
Trump bursts the collar, he puts down his previous restraint. The term “Wuhan virus”, as Matt Pottinger suggested to him for a long time, is now too less aggressive for him. Trump goes a step further and uses the term “Chinese virus” for the first time in a tweet from March 16, 2020.
At least now, the climate between the USA and China is poisoned. When clarifying open questions about the origin of the pandemic, the focus is often no longer on scientific arguments, but rather on geopolitical battles.
After her relief that the new coronavirus did not come from her laboratory, Shi Zhengli will initially ride on a wave of success in early 2020. It helps to decipher the genome of the pathogen, on January 11, 2020 it will be shared with the global research community. Soon afterwards, the Chinese researcher came across the gene sequence of another virus in her database that she had collected on one of her many forays into southern China. This virus is 96.2 percent identical to Wuhan’s new coronavirus. To date, it is the closest known relative of Sars-CoV-2.
In February 2020, Shi and her colleagues will publish the groundbreaking discovery in the journal “Nature”. They call the virus RaTG13, after the Latin name of the bat (Rhinolophus affinis), where it was found (Tongguan) and the year it was found (2013).
But a group of scientists from all over the world, who are exchanging ideas on Twitter under the hashtag #DRASTIC, encountered inconsistencies. The acronym stands for “Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19”. That sounds somehow like Chaos Computer Club, and the group works in a similar way: The participating twitterers come from different departments, from which they contribute their specific knowledge, partly anonymously.
The community asks itself: Why was the complete gene sequence of RaTG13 only published in February 2020 when it was created in 2013? And why did the authors not disclose the exact location of the coronavirus in the specialist article, but only the area?
It is Rossana Segreto, a young virologist at the University of Innsbruck, who was the first to establish an astonishing connection: The published gene sequence of RaTG13 exactly matches a gene sequence that the Institute of Virology already mentioned in an earlier publication – but at that time under one completely different designation.
Rossana Segreto makes the amazing discovery that the published gene sequence of RaTG13 corresponds exactly to a gene sequence that was already mentioned in an earlier publication – but under a completely different name at the time.
The investigative scientists from #DRASTIC continue to research – and unearth surprising things. The tracing of RaTG13 does not lead to a cave, but to a former copper mine called Mojiang in Yunnan Province: So this is the origin of the current pandemic.
In a so-called addendum, which was published in “Nature” last November, Shi Zhengli and her colleagues finally confirm the research carried out by #DRASTIC.
The history of the Mojiang copper mine is something like the corpus delicti of those who believe or even favor a laboratory accident as the cause of the pandemic. The story goes like this: In April 2012, six employees are tasked with cleaning the remote mine. For two weeks they laboriously clear the entrance area of a thick layer of feces that swarms of bats have left over the years. Then all six employees fall ill; They are admitted to the University Hospital in Kunming with severe pneumonia; some of them have to be artificially ventilated. Three of the hospitalized employees eventually succumb to their illness.
All of this is strikingly reminiscent of the disease progression as we know it from Covid-19. Last year, the Indian scientist Monali C. Rahalkar, who also belongs to the #DRASTIC network, came across the diagnosis of the time in a paper written in Chinese. It states that the six Mojiang miners are believed to have contracted a Sars-like virus, which is believed to have come from a bat belonging to the horseshoe bat.
To find the unknown virus, Kunming University Hospital turned to Shi Zhengli in October 2012. She tested various blood samples from the miners for Ebola and other viruses, but the tests were all negative. So in 2013 Shi decided to go to the Mojiang copper mine himself.
Together with her team, she collected well over a thousand samples and stored their gene sequences in her database in Wuhan. But Shi Zhengli came to a surprising conclusion: none of these pathogens was responsible for the mine workers’ disease.
In the addendum from last November, she writes that the mine workers’ blood samples were also subsequently tested for Sars-CoV-2. But these tests were also negative. In an interview with “Scientist American”, she attributes the mine workers’ severe pneumonia to a fungal disease instead.
To sum up: Shi recognizes that RaTG13, the Sars-CoV-2 most closely related virus, originated in the Mojiang copper mine. There was an accumulation of exceptionally serious lung diseases there in 2012, with symptoms reminiscent of Covid-19. Three out of six patients died. But Shi Zhengli comes to the conclusion that the cause of death was not one of the many Sars viruses from the mine, but mushroom poisoning. Your diagnosis contradicts the assessment of a lung specialist whom the hospital in Kunming called in in 2012.
This raises many questions that are impossible to answer remotely. But regardless of the cause of death of the three miners, it is undisputed that the Institute of Virology in Wuhan has had the virus called RaTG13 since 2013. The American government assumes that experiments have been carried out with this virus since 2016 at the latest, and that they will probably last until the end of 2019. This emerges from a fact sheet that was created last January in cooperation with the US intelligence services. The experiments with RaTG13 are likely to have involved “gain of function” research.
Rumors from China
Shi Zhengli is not only under pressure from Western scientists. As early as the beginning of 2020, China’s bad things were brewing on social networks. Without anyone providing evidence, the renowned scientist is increasingly bluntly accused that her laboratory is responsible for the outbreak of the new coronavirus. The rumors spread to the USA in mid-January. The belligerent Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, welcomes them gratefully. With G-News, Bannon, who was once responsible for the right-wing portal “Breitbart”, has founded a new television channel. The majority of the money for the project comes from Guo Wengui, a colorful businessman from China who has been living in exile in the USA for several years.
Bannon and Guo Wengui have a common opponent, the Chinese Communist Party. The rumor that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, whether accidentally or deliberately, suits them both. They are kicking it wide with the sole aim of firing at full barrel at the Chinese government and the laboratory.
At the same time, a short technical article appears on a small portal, an initially inconspicuous work by a graduate of the South China University of Technology. In it, the author, Botao Xiao, comes to the conclusion that the new coronavirus probably came from a laboratory in Wuhan. In his essay, he cheerfully describes how an employee of the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention was attacked by a bat twice: once the employee came into contact with the blood of the bat and another time with the bat’s urine. Aware of the danger, the laboratory employee voluntarily went into quarantine for two weeks on both occasions. Although the two incidents in Wuhan did not take place at Shi’s institute, this is also mentioned in the article.
The student’s work will soon be taken offline again, but it can still be accessed using an archive search engine. Botao Xiao later told American media that he had withdrawn the article of his own free will because his conclusion was not based on his own research, but mainly on Chinese newspaper articles.
At the beginning of February 2020, Shi Zhengli is trying to break free after all these rumors. She swears by her life that the new coronavirus outbreak has nothing to do with her laboratory, she publicly announced. Rather, with the virus, nature is punishing humanity for not wanting to give up its uncivilized habits. By this she probably meant the tradition of her compatriots to eat pretty much everything that crawls and flies around them.
Friends rush to help
A little later, around two dozen scientists from all over the world show their solidarity with Shi Zhengli. In a statement published on February 18, 2020 in the online edition of the specialist journal “Lancet”, they praised their Chinese colleagues for the “rapid, open and transparent sharing of data on the Covid-19 outbreak”. This cooperation is now endangered by rumors and misinformation. They strongly condemn conspiracy theories that Covid-19 has no natural origin. Such conspiracy theories would only stir up fears and prejudices, according to the scientists’ statement.
The field is thus marked: In the search for the origin of the pandemic, laboratory theory is now considered to be swampy terrain. It later emerges that the American zoologist Peter Daszak, the head of an NGO from New York called the Eco Health Alliance, was behind the call. Daszak is very familiar with Shi Zhengli, and they have been involved in joint research projects for over 15 years.
During this time they also published various studies in specialist journals. In a joint work that appeared in “Nature”, the two show how they succeeded in isolating a Sars-like coronavirus from a bat that is capable of docking directly with a human cell for the first time. From this they conclude that an intermediate host is not absolutely necessary for a human infection.
With another co-author – Ralph Baric, one of the pioneers of “gain of function” research – Shi Zhengli published another sensational “study” in 2015. It is shown how an artificially created hybrid of two different coronaviruses connects particularly efficiently with human respiratory cells.
At this point in time, there was already an intense debate about the benefits and risks of “gain of function”. At its core, it is about the question of whether it actually makes sense to create a potential hazard with good intent that does not yet exist in nature. The American government under Barack Obama had already imposed a moratorium in 2014: For the time being, such research should no longer be funded with state funds.
However, an exception is made for Peter Daszak: He is allowed to implement a project lasting several years that was granted to him shortly before the moratorium. However, the research has to be outsourced abroad – to the Institute of Virology in Wuhan.
Shi Zhengli indirectly receives further support from the scientific side. In March 2020, a research group led by the American virologist Kristian G. Andersen presented a study in “Nature Medicine” that is still considered authoritative today. Andersen concludes that it is highly unlikely that Sars-CoV-2 was artificially manufactured in a laboratory. However, he admits that there is no evidence for other hypotheses, such as zoonosis, as the transmission from animal to human is called.
Daszak and Andersen are both very active on Twitter. They sometimes lose their academic composure on the social media channel. As soon as someone makes himself known who brings laboratory theory into play, he is covered by the two of them with comments, which are mostly somewhere between smug and disparaging.
About three weeks ago, Robert Redfield, the former director of the American health department, said in an interview with CNN: In his view, the most likely variant for the cause of the virus is still an accidental leak from the laboratory in Wuhan. This is his personal opinion, according to Redfield, who has worked as a virologist for decades. It is clear to him that other people do not believe that it is okay, sooner or later science will find out which of the two is right.
Redfield’s suggestion did not go down well with Daszak and Andersen. Andersen tweeted: “The man was the most incompetent health director of all time.” And: “Do you really want me to comment on his skills as a virologist?” Daszak’s answer: «Ouch. . . please tell us what you really think, dr. Andersen! “
The warnings from the US embassy
The laboratory in Wuhan with the highest security level, 4, where Shi Zhengli and Peter Daszak carried out the outsourced “gain of function” research from 2015, was inspected several times by scientifically trained employees of the US embassy. This resulted in two urgent warnings, as the Washington Post revealed a year ago: The diplomats wired to Washington in 2018 that there was general concern about the security of the facility. And: In particular, there are concerns that research on coronaviruses from bats could trigger a pandemic, similar to that of Sars.
In fact, several outbreaks of dangerous pathogens have been documented from safety laboratories. In 2004, for example, there was an accident in Beijing with the Sars virus, which had been kept for research purposes after the epidemic was contained. In this accident, nine employees were infected and one died.
Mind you: With this incomplete collection of clues and anomalies, we are, so to speak, at the macro level in the search for the origin of the pandemic. We can only analyze traces outside of the virus, which are not even visible to the naked eye. The origin of the inner workings of Sars-CoV-2 is something we have to rely on the expertise of microbiologists and virologists.
In this regard, the study by Kristian G. Andersen is largely recognized, despite some objections. She is questioned by others, such as Rosanna Segreto. A central set of questions is emerging from the ongoing debate: How is it possible that Sars-CoV-2 can dock onto human cells so perfectly after such a short period of time? Is this really as astonishing as some claim, or is the phenomenon also known from other Sars viruses? And derived from this: Did this optimal adaptation to human cells take place through natural evolution? Or was there help in the laboratory?
In the statement in the specialist magazine «Lancet», which Peter Daszak initiated last year, the limit for possible answers was set very quickly and very tightly: The transmission of Sars-CoV-2 was done naturally, everything else was Conspiracy theory «severely condemned».
The strange WHO mission
At the beginning of the year, after months of tough negotiations with China, a WHO research group went on an inspection trip to Wuhan. The group consists of two delegations of 17 members each. The Chinese part appears as a homogeneous bloc, mainly made up of state employees. The international delegation is a heterogeneous bunch of individualists from all over the world. Three of them were missing from the inspection trip, a spokesman for the WHO confirmed. They were only connected via video, among them the German zoonoses expert Fabian Leendertz. Sometimes the picture from the cell phone camera was so blurred that he preferred to turn it off, he told “Die Zeit”.
Another member of the international delegation is of all people Peter Daszak, Shi Zhengli’s long-time colleague. That caused some frowns in some places. The American government, then under President Trump, had proposed three experienced experts to the WHO. All three were ignored, instead the WHO appointed Daszak. He told the Wall Street Journal that he had disclosed the conflict of interest in his application. He is convinced that he can make a valuable contribution with his experience.
As part of their inspection tour in Wuhan, the research group also visited the Institute of Virology. The international delegation – specifically Peter Daszak – confronted the laboratory manager Shi Zhengli with allegations of the #DRASTIC network. His research had shown that the institute is still keeping a whole series of important data under the lid.
Databases that were previously publicly accessible are said to have first been given a new password and later switched off completely. According to the American government’s fact sheet, these databases also contain, in particular, logs on the work of the institute with the RaTG13 virus. Confronted with the allegation, Shi Zhengli said the databases had been shut down because there had been around 3,000 hacker attacks.
The WHO research group presented its final report at the end of March. Both delegations always had to agree to the wording, which gave China a de facto right of veto. That may explain to a certain extent why the research group wants to investigate the supply chain of frozen food further, but not a possible laboratory accident. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to this in an interview with CNN by stating that the Chinese government apparently co-wrote the final report.
Together with thirteen allied states, the USA officially protested against the final report. In a statement, they call for a new investigation that is independent of China. Data that are indispensable for research are still being withheld: full details of the first known infected people in Wuhan as well as comprehensive analyzes of blood samples from all over Hubei province in the run-up to the outbreak. Switzerland refused to go along with the demand, Germany signed a somewhat more moderate EU statement.
In contrast, Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese delegation, justified the withholding of some data on the grounds of privacy. In an interview with the “Global Times” he said that the legal situation in China does not allow patient data to be transferred abroad in some cases. The international experts in the WHO research group understood that perfectly.
In addition to the US government, a group of scientists have also voiced their reservations. In an open letter published in the New York Times, they point out various weaknesses in the WHO final report. Rossana Segreto co-signed the open letter. In relation to the NZZ, she cites the two most important demands in her view: free access to the Mojiang copper mine and free access to laboratory data.
The questions that remain
The Sars outbreak – the acronym stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome” – fundamentally changed the world of coronaviruses almost twenty years ago. Until then, corona viruses – named after the now well-known spikes that are reminiscent of a crown – were considered harmless. In infected people, they caused a cough or a slight cold in the winter season, nothing more. It was different with Sars. It was the first coronavirus that could be dangerous for humans – around 800 of the 8,000 infected died at the time.
The mortality rate is even 35 percent with Mers, the “Middle East respiratory syndrome”, the second dangerous coronavirus for humans. It broke out on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012, and every third person infected dies. The fact that Sars – from today’s perspective Sars-CoV-1 – and Mers could be brought under control at an early stage despite their high mortality is primarily due to the fact that both coronaviruses lead to significantly more deaths, but are much less contagious than Sars- CoV-2.
Many thousands more coronaviruses lie dormant in nature outside, especially in bats, also in pangolins. Many are harmless, but not all. Because humans are increasingly penetrating new areas, there will always be unwanted transmissions from animals to humans. It is all the more important to get on the track of the transmission chain in order to be prepared for the next outbreak.
In order to be able to determine the origin of the current pandemic, two essential key data are still missing: a possible intermediate host for the zoonosis – and the “patient zero”. When Sars broke out, the intermediate host in the form of a civet cat could be found after a few months. In the case of Mers (dromedary) or HIV (chimpanzee), however, it took significantly longer. The search for the possible intermediate host of Sars-CoV-2 is currently focused on the numerous wildlife farms in rural China, which, however, were closed a year ago as a precaution.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the focus was initially on one of China’s many wildlife markets, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The market is about 12 kilometers away from the Institute of Virology on the other side of the Yangtze River. A few hundred meters from the market there is another laboratory that conducts research on coronaviruses, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Chinese authorities quickly identified the market as a possible source of animal-to-human transmission of the virus. But a study of 41 infected people who were infected in Wuhan in December 2019 found that around a third of them had no connection whatsoever to this wildlife market.
In addition, all sorts of animals were traded on the market, but not a single bat. The blood samples that were tested for Sars-CoV-2 from over three hundred animal carcasses from the market were also consistently negative. All of this suggests that the market is not the real source of the pandemic. Rather, it is likely to be a first corona hotspot from which the virus spread around the world. In the specialist literature, the first known infected person is usually dated December 1, 2019. The WHO corrected the date in its final report to December 8, 2019, the day the patient became ill.
In order to get from the first group of infected people in Wuhan to “patient zero”, the person who was infected first, two numbers are important. The genetic match between Sars-CoV-2 and its closest relative, RaTG13, is 96.2 percent. For the layperson, this agreement appears great. But in terms of evolutionary biology, there is a distance of several decades between them. If the virus was actually transmitted naturally to humans, it must have been in an intermediate host for a very long time in order to adapt to the human cells.
So does that speak against a zoonosis? Not really. It only means that the virus has been in a potential intermediate host for a long time without being recognized. The missing intermediate host itself represents a significantly larger gap in the hypothesis of natural transmission favored by science. It has been searched for for over a year, so far without any result.
A second number is 99.98 percent. This is how great the genetic match of the coronaviruses was found in the first known infected people. That is a very high figure. It means that “patient zero” cannot be far away in time – a few weeks at the most, that would mean mid-November or October 2019 at the earliest. At best, this could be reconciled with some early cases of Covid-19 abroad, for example in Italy or France, which were subsequently determined.
And does this time frame speak for or against laboratory theory? Well, at least it doesn’t rule them out. In autumn 2019, “gain of function” research was almost certainly carried out at the Institute of Virology. The US government’s fact sheet also states that it has reason to believe that several researchers from inside the institute fell ill in autumn 2019, before the first known cases in Wuhan. However, the symptoms matched both Covid-19 and seasonal flu.
The “South China Morning Post” reported on a very early illness last year. In the article she mentions a 55-year-old man from Hubei Province as “patient zero”. He fell ill on November 17, 2019. That would fit in the timeframe, but the case has never been confirmed by the Chinese authorities.
Ultimately, based on genome analyzes, research assumes that the virus was transmitted to humans in a single event – whether in an accident in the laboratory or in contact with nature, that remains a mystery.