This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
It’s been six months since the pandemic started but the origin of the coronavirus remains a mystery. So much so that it has given rise to a whole swarm of conspiracy theories. Some believe that COVID-19 was leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, or that it was made in a United States lab and brought to China by a single athlete. And let’s not forget about the coronavirus truthers who claim the “plandemic” was meant to herald a new world order. None of these speculations have been proven and many have described them as questionable, at best. Until recently, the most widely accepted theory was that the virus came from a Wuhan wet market. It turns out, however, that this might not be the case.
The Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had previously claimed that the coronavirus likely originated from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the first cluster of coronavirus cases in Wuhan seemingly emerged. Many believe that people contracted the virus from bushmeat sold in the market. This caused China to ban its wildlife markets, and activists to push for the elimination of global wildlife trade.
In light of recent research, Chinese scientists are now saying that the virus likely didn’t come from that market at all. In an interview with the Chinese network Phoenix Television on May 25, Gao Fu, the director of the China’s CDC, said that none of the animal samples that they had collected from Wuhan in January tested positive for COVID-19. He even suggested that Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market could in fact be a “victim” of the coronavirus, which may have already been spreading before the outbreak. However, he did not provide any conclusions and said that scientists need more time to research the issue.
In January, when the coronavirus had not yet evolved into a full-blown pandemic, a report published in medical journal The Lancet found that only 13 of the initial 41 confirmed cases in Wuhan were actually linked to the market.
The Chinese CDC’s latest findings have also been echoed by foreign scientific experts. Colin Carlson, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, told Live Science that he has not seen any evidence that the market is a likely origin of the virus.
“But this has developed into a narrative,” Carlson said, referring to the theory that Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was where the coronavirus first jumped from an animal species to humans.
The popularity of this narrative may lie in its implications for wildlife conservation efforts — if proven to be true, this could help permanently close wildlife markets and put an end to the trafficking of endangered animals.
While wet markets do provide an environment for interspecies virus transmission to occur, Carlson noted that none of the animal tissue samples collected from the market have tested positive for COVID-19.
Instead, the cluster of cases at the Wuhan market could really have been a superspreading event, he said. A superspreader is an infected individual who infects an exceptionally large number of people with a virus.
Chinese authorities also ruled out U.S. President Donald Trump's claim that the coronavirus came from a Wuhan lab.
Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who has been collecting various virus samples from bat caves over the years, told Scientific American that she was initially concerned that the outbreak in Wuhan could have been the result of the mishandling of experimental materials in the lab, especially during the disposal processes.
However, a series of testing done by her and her team found that the genetic sequences extracted from coronavirus patients did not match the viruses that were stored in their lab. This means they had not identified this particular strain of coronavirus before the outbreak.
“That really took a load off my mind,” she said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”
So where did the coronavirus really come from? It seems like we will not get the answer anytime soon. To put things into perspective, it took about 15 years for scientists to prove that SARS came from a species of bats.
As for the coronavirus, Carlson said that it could take much longer, seeing as it took months just to rule out one site.
Chinese authorities also emphasised that more time is needed for the scientific community to come to a sound conclusion.
“The question of its origin is fundamentally a scientific question, that needs scientists to use scientific data and facts to make a judgement,” said Wang.