Origin of the corona virus: where does the infection really come from?

A seafood market in Beijing: it is not yet clear where the virus came from. Image: AP

Origin of the coronavirus pandemic: where does the infection really come from?

A wildlife market in Wuhan or a Chinese high security laboratory? It is also unclear where the corona virus originated. However, researchers are finding more and more evidence that invalidates conspiracy theories.

Nicole Sagener / t-online

The novel corona virus has been spreading around the continent for four months. Researchers around the world have been trying to track down the origin of the pathogen for just as long.

Wildlife market? Chinese high security laboratory? Even though there are numerous traces, clues and even more conspiracy theories, it remains unclear where the corona epidemic actually started. The Huanan fish and wildlife market in Wuhan is believed to be the source.

Bat as the original host of the corona virus

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a bat species is most likely the original host animal of SARS-CoV-2. It is not yet certain whether the highly infectious causative agent of the lung disease Covid-19 passed directly to humans from the animals or whether it passed through an animal intermediate host such as a snake or an armadillo.

A man looks at caged wildlife at a market in Guangzhou. Image: AP

However, a study by Chinese researchers published in the specialist journal “Lancet” came to the conclusion in January that of the first 41 infected persons reported, 14 had not previously come into contact with the market.

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That, along with other facts, fueled rumors of a different starting point for the corona virus: As US media reported, there are other places near the market in Wuhan where bats can come into direct contact with humans: on the one hand, they are used as laboratory animals held at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – a high-security laboratory, which, however, is not in the center of the city. The other was the Wuhan Disease Control and Prevention Center (WHCDC), which is not far from the Huanan market.

Conspiracy theories: SARS-CoV-2 as a designed biological weapon?

Theories quickly circulated on the Internet according to which the new virus did not emerge accidentally, but was specifically cultivated as a biological weapon in the WIV laboratory. Another assumption, as expressed by the Washington Post journalist David Ignatius in an opinion, is based on an undesired breakdown in the laboratory.

According to this, the coronavirus could have mutated in a laboratory animal and then accidentally jumped onto an employee of the research institute, who then carried it among other people.

After US President Donald Trump repeatedly declared China to be guilty of the epidemic with terms such as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus”, the Beijing leadership reacted with a baseless conspiracy theory: It cannot be ruled out that the pathogen came to Wuhan during a military sports festival in autumn 2019. However, there is no evidence of this.

Genetic analysis speaks against breeding laboratory theory

Most scientists also consider the thesis of the breeding laboratory to be untenable for several reasons. On the one hand, the WIV research institute is around twelve kilometers from the Huanan market – so the way to the market would be quite long. In addition, genetic analyzes of the new type of coronavirus are rather against the fact that the pathogen has been specifically designed.

The Huanan market is twelve kilometers from the research laboratory. Image: AP

For example, a study published in the journal Nature Medicine in mid-March (The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2) provided strong evidence against a man-made origin of SARS-CoV-2. The researchers involved analyzed genome data from the virus.

In their evaluation, the study authors write: “It is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 was caused by laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.” The genetic data would unequivocally show that SARS-CoV-2 was not derived from a basic framework of an existing corona virus used in the laboratory, according to the team of scientists.

When did Covid 19 pathogens adapt to humans?

Instead, the researchers consider two scenarios to be likely: Either the virus already mutated in an animal host in such a way that when it jumped onto humans, its cells could hijack without any problems and infection from human to human was possible from the start.

Or, according to the researchers’ second scenario, the virus only passed from animal to human and only adapted optimally to the new host through mutations in the human body. In this case, the infection chains in humans would initially be short, and the virus would then only gradually become an efficiently spreading pathogen due to the increasing adaptation to the human organism.

“It is important that this analysis provides evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is neither a laboratory construct nor a deliberately manipulated virus,” the researchers sum up in their investigation. There is no evidence of such genetic manipulation.

The wild animal market as a breeding tank

Researchers also consider the fish market to be the more likely starting point for the corona epidemic because the epidemic that broke out in China in 2003 with the SARS corona virus apparently had started out from a Chinese market in which wild animals were sold.

According to the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), 60 percent of infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, so they have their origin in the animal kingdom. These include well-known germs such as HIV, tuberculosis, rabies and newer pathogens such as Ebola and influenza. Mammals in particular can often be shown to have pathogens that are zoonotic, that is, they can jump from animals to humans.

At the fish market in Wuhan, the various wild animals such as bats, raccoons, wolves and snakes came into close contact with their secretions and excretions, as well as with humans, by keeping them in a confined space.

Wherever the virus may come from – the fact that the wildlife trade makes the transition from germs from animals to humans significantly easier is obvious.

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