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Earliest known cases of Covid-19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan

Snacks sold at a street market in Wuhan, China. File photo.
Snacks sold at a street market in Wuhan, China. File photo.
Image: Aly Song/Reuters

An international team of 18 researchers has confirmed that the first cases of Covid-19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China.

This is an important study because the origin of the disease, which to date has officially killed 6.4-million people but likely far more in reality, has been used as a political football.

Although early reports focused on a wet market in Wuhan, Chinese officials dismissed the theory.

Former US president Donald Trump promoted a conspiracy theory about a lab leak, also in Wuhan, but prominent researchers dismissed the theory in a letter in The Lancet and other publications.

The new report, published this week in Science, shows the earliest cases were linked to bats, foxes and other live animals (mammals in particular) infected with the virus and sold in the market either for consumption or for their fur.

The research pinpoints the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and according to co-author of the study Stephen Goldstein from the University of Utah: “These are the most compelling and most detailed studies of what happened in Wuhan in the earliest stages of what would become the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have convincingly shown that the wild animal sales at the Huanan Market in Wuhan are implicated in the first human cases of the disease.”

They found the virus that causes Covid-19 can likely be traced to one or more of the 10 to 15 stalls in the market that sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (a small deer). Health officials and researchers detected the virus on animal cages, carts and drainage grates in these venues.

The only areas where the virus was spreading in December 2019 were neighbourhoods within 8km of the market, and two variants were detected at the market. 

If the virus originated elsewhere, it’s more likely only a single variant would have been found, said the researchers, who have called on public officials to “seek better understanding of the wildlife trade in China and elsewhere and promote more comprehensive testing of live animals sold in markets to lower the risk of future pandemics”.



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