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December 2021

Featuring Marykate Moss
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In the Beginning: The Origins of COVID-19
Featured Article

In the Beginning: The Origins of COVID-19

Was COVID-19 transmitted from animals to humans, or did well-meaning scientists unleash a Frankenstein virus on the world?

Soon after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February 2020, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published a letter signed by 27 public health experts vowing, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” For most of the following year, as COVID infections and deaths soared worldwide, that belief—that the pandemic was a natural accident, as unavoidable as an act of God—was the gospel truth, and all who doubted it were just ignorant crackpots.

That premature certainty has given way to a more evenhanded and scientific attitude: There are now two competing theories about COVID-19, and neither has been proven or disproven beyond a doubt so far. The novel coronavirus may well have been zoonotic (transmitted from animals to humans), or it may have been a bioengineered virus that accidentally leaked from an experimental biolab. We know the latter theory was not concocted by some tin-foil-hat-wearing sci-fi nerd, because this type of research has definitely been conducted in the past, and it appears to have been conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab in China, in the very city where the first SARS CoV-2 cases were detected.

A large proportion of the first COVID cases were discovered in Wuhan’s Hunan Wholesale Seafood Market, a “wet market,” where a zoo of dead and live wild animal meats, including bats, are sold in the open air and the hygiene is not quite up to your local Kroger’s refrigerated standards. These types of markets have been implicated as the petri dishes for COVID-19’s predecessors: SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, both viruses that originated in bats. SARS jumped to civets and MERS jumped to camels first before both started infecting humans. In their dark, damp caves, dense bat colonies and the tons of guano piling up below them are great incubators of novel pathogens.(The Ebola virus is believed to have originated in the family Pteropodidae fruit bats.) But bat genetics are still quite distant from human genetics; it seems that bat coronaviruses have to evolve up the biological ladder in an intermediate host—some larger mammal with four limbs and no wings—before they can make us sick. A wet market offers perfect opportunities.

So it was natural to assume that the COVID-19 bat virus made the same leap. It was theorized that civets were again the intermediate culprit. Except that no infected civets were found. Then pangolins were fingered. But no infected pangolins have been located either. Now, closing in on two years since the pandemic began, no intermediate host has been discovered, despite serious efforts by Chinese government scientists who have a strong incentive to find one. The zoonotic theory, like an act of God, would let everybody off the hook. Scientists across the world now agree that COVID-19 did not originate in the Wuhan wet market—almost half of the early victims had no connection to it. The Wuhan wet market was the first amplifier, not the womb of the pandemic. It came from somewhere else.

ANIMAL AND SEAFOOD MARKET IN WUHAN, CHINA. PHOTO BY AMNAT/ALAMY.

Comedians often have a way of cutting through the clutter and getting down to core truths; Jon Stewart did this on Colbert’s Late Show recently when he said, “The disease is the same name as the lab!” Meaning that the connection—a deadly new human-infectious bat virus emerges in the same city where a lab was bioengineering bat viruses to be more infectious—might be more than a coincidence.

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