Covid-19: Where From? Why Now?

Yves here. There’s still a lot of speculation on how Covid-19 originated. Our medical sleuth Ignacio has a look.

By Ignacio Moreno Echanove, an epidemiologist

I recently read an article (1, in Spanish) that made the case that Covid-19 could somehow be a pandemic of our own creation. Not that humans created the agent but human practices facilitated the transfer and spread of the disease. So far, we have just learnt, the epidemics could have been originated in wild animal farms or markets in China though we still don’t know the precise location and the intermediary species possibly involved. It is assumed, and a lot of known molecular data so indicates, that this virus has an origin in bats (reviewed in 2) but it’s ability to infect humans was probably acquired in an intermediate host –probably a host with similarities in the virus receptor with humans– and then tuned in a hypothetical human subject 0 of the epidemics into the virus now is infecting so many and adapting even more in the process. Just like SARS 1.0 did in civets before jumping to humans in 2002.

One can rightly ask why two relatively rare events like SARS 1.0 (2002), and SARS 2.0 (2019) have come to occur in a relatively short span. We can add avian origin H5N1 Flu in 2003, also originated in South Eastern Asia.

If you don’t believe in mere coincidences, I agree with you. Something must be facilitating this. But there are differences. First, H5N1 Flu has avian origin while both SARS come originally from bats. Second, flu is associated with farming while both SARS are associated with wild animal trafficking. As for the first difference, avian and mammal coronavirus diverged about 300 million years ago according to molecular clock studies and none of the known human coronavirus can be associated with known avian coronavirus while many flu strains are thought to be originated in birds. This still leaves the former question unanswered.

The first article linked says that some of the animal and human epidemics we have been seeing lately would have a relation with industrial farming. Indeed, farming has almost certainly been the origin of most infectious human diseases since as long as 7.000 years ago. Moreover, intensive industrial farming practices may be behind several outbursts of novel animal and human diseases as these may result in rapid amplification of diseases (3).

(Quote from ref. 3): There is a near consensus among experts that overuse of antibiotics, crowded and unsanitary livestock conditions, unnatural feed diets, and a lack of diversification are responsible for some serious global health risks.

I am OK with this and it may explain the 5 bacterial and viral diseases listed in the article. But it has been shown that H5N1 flu was originated in a family farm so it is not always a case of centralized industrial production in megafarms (4). Moreover, such megafarms are in many cases better isolated from wild sources than traditional farms and might offer less opportunities for species jumping from the wild as in SARS.

If SARS has a relationship with wild animal farming and markets, what has then this to do with farming?

The original article goes on to say that an increase in wild animal trafficking in China could be related with a sharp drop in meat production in China in 2019. An outbreak of African Swine Fever disease starting in 2018 caused a large production decrease in China during 2019 (5). Pork accounts for more than 60% of total meat production in China (broiler meat excluded). According to the National Statistics Bureau of China (NSBCh) pork meat production fell in China by 21% in 2019 with a total loss of about 11.5 million tons of meat (6). An increase in lamb and beef meat production could compensate only for a small part of this. The NSBCh does not yet provide for meat price changes in 2019 but this is a solid suggestion that wild animal trafficking could have increased partly to compensate for shortages of pork meat. At least in international markets this caused a spike in frozen pig meat (7). This looks like a solid line of research to explore.

Interestingly, I found a link that makes the opposite argument: industrial farming, and not wild animal farms are to blame (8). According to this analysis, a SADS (pig coronavirus) epidemic a few years ago in pork farms in China suggests that industrial farming and not familiar farms, are to blame.

(Quote from 8 Many of the animals on this list are industrially farmed in China, even wild animals like civets and pangolins are intensively farmed for their use in Chinese medicines. Suspicions that wild animal farms may have been behind the Covid-19 outbreak have already led the Chinese government to shut down 20,000 wild animal farms across the country.

But hardly any attention has been given to some other animals on this list, which more clearly meet the “high population density” criteria. Pigs would be one obvious candidate from this list, for several reasons. For one, pigs and humans have very similar immune systems, making it easy for viruses to cross between the two species, as happened with the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia in 1998… [emphasis mine]

I would argue that high density is to blame for amplification of diseases but this doesn’t say anything about the origin. As I wrote before megafarms may be better isolated from the wild than the familiar farms they defend in the article. Moreover, given the large number of wild animal farms that Chinese authorities closed, the chances of a fortuitous jump from bats, civets, racoons, pangolins etc. to humans seem greatly higher on these than on megafarms. So far, no coronavirus jump has been demonstrated from pigs to humans whereas civets were demonstrated for SARS 1.0. My opinion is that it would be a big mistake to overlook their potential role in this and possible future outbreaks.

Besides, the fact that Chinese authorities closed these farms is very telling. It is important that many mammal species are screened to find a CoV which is closest to SARS CoV 2 to prevent new outbreaks. A recent article said, on the basis of ACE2 receptor similarities, that reptiles might be discarded for search but Bovidae (cows…) or Cricetidae (rodent subgroup) should be included in the search (9), but similarities in ACE 2 do not prove much about the origin of SARS CoV 2.

I find it annoying that after a couple of months no an exhaustive work has been published on this topic. After some noises on snakes and pangolins and now Bovidae or Cricetidae we are still in the dark. Are Chinese authorities retaining information that could somehow discredit them? According to (10):

Just weeks before the outbreak, China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) was still actively encouraging citizens to get into farming wildlife such as civet cats – a species pinpointed as a carrier of Sars, a disease similar to Covid-19. The SFGA regulates both farming and trade in terrestrial wildlife, and quotas of wildlife products – such as pangolin scales – allowed to be used by the Chinese medicine industry.

I think The Guardian may have got it right.


  1. Causalidad de la pandemia, cualidad de la catástrofe.
  2. Zoonotic origins of human coronaviruses.
  3. A Review on “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching” by D.J. Sencer.
  4. 5 modern diseases grown by factory farming.
  5. China’s 2019 pork output plunges to 16-year low as disease culls herd.
  6. National Bureau of Statistics, China. Annual data.
  8. New research suggests industrial livestock, not wet markets, might be origin of Covid-19.
  9. SARS-CoV-2 spike protein favors ACE2 from Bovidae and Cricetidae.
  10. Coronavirus closures reveals vast scale of China’s secretive wildlife farm industry.


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  1. xkeyscored

    It is important that many mammal species are screened to find a CoV which is closest to SARS CoV 2

    As I understand it, there are probably two CoVs involved, which have merged in some host (a pangolin? a human?) to form a new virus. It looks like one is a bat CoV, providing the backbone of the virus, while the other may be from pangolins, providing the spike protein. As for Chinese authorities suppressing embarrassing information, while it is indeed possible, it seems just as likely that there are too many bats and pangolins (and cows and rodents) to check everything.

    “Although RaTG13, sampled from a Rhinolophus affinis bat1, is ~96% identical overall to SARS-CoV-2, its spike diverges in the RBD, which suggests that it may not bind efficiently to human ACE27 (Fig. 1a).

    Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) illegally imported into Guangdong province contain coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-221. Although the RaTG13 bat virus remains the closest to SARS-CoV-2 across the genome1, some pangolin coronaviruses exhibit strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the RBD, including all six key RBD residues21 (Fig. 1). This clearly shows that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein optimized for binding to human-like ACE2 is the result of natural selection.

    Neither the bat betacoronaviruses nor the pangolin betacoronaviruses sampled thus far have polybasic cleavage sites. Although no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively undersampled.”

    The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2

    1. xkeyscored

      And if a bat CoV did merge with a pangolin CoV in a pangolin, creating a new virus which went on to infect humans, we’ll probably never find the original pangolin (long since dead?) or ‘the original SARS-CoV-2’, except by inference and deduction.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        i remember reading an article a long time ago, in sciam, natgeo, or some such(it was an actual physical magazine, which limits which publication), that the seasonal flu came about because of certain peasant ways of life in rural china encouraged mixing of pathogens between humans, pigs and various barnyard fowl(ducks).
        I remember thinking…having grown up on a farm…”now how could what they’re doing differ from what we’re doing?”
        we lived cheek by jowl with many of the same animals….except the pig.
        the only other difference i could think of was hygiene… adequate sewerage, the availability of soap?
        I still have no idea of the actual conditions of the chinese peasantry.
        Long cultural practice regarding things like Nightsoil means that they do some things very differently from us.
        so it might not be all Big Ag’s fault….
        (Big Ag’s downsides are numerous, though…and can only make things worse)
        as for wild animal markets…we have those: “Wild Game”…or “Exotics”…mostly ungulates. Eland, Axis and Fallow Deer, Neelgi, Zebra, Elk…but sometimes large birds(Emu, Ostrich)
        I’ve been to an auction or two. Filthy as any other kind of auction I’ve experienced…but no butchering allowed,lol.
        could it be as simple as that?
        I know we sure take care in any butchering we do. Wild Critters are contained in that carefulness.

        *(and these animals have generally never been confined close up together before…unlike more conventional livestock, due to common husbandry practices:grass fed, pastured, no feedlot)

        ….and…none of this rumination should be taken as an indictment, however mild, of chinese peasants(or any peasants). I imagine that they and i would have a lot to talk about, and a whole lot in common.

    2. Ignacio

      The recombination theory between a bat and a pangolin CoV as SARS CoV 2 origin is just that, a very difficult to prove theory (and quite unlikely IMO). Another possibility to explain pangolin CoV striking similarity of the spike protein with SARS CoV 2 could be evolutionary convergence. Or it might be the case that recombination events were the source for pangolin CoVs in a distant past. Molecular evolution analysis shows clearly that Pangolin CoVs and SARS CoV 2 are very distantly related compared with known bat strains and this supports the case that this species was not probably the intermediate host. Searching for similar viruses in some other mammal hosts is necessary and we might find the polybasic cleavage site on some yet unknown host. I think this is the leading conclusion of the study you cited. But so far nobody seems to have gone beyond.

      1. TroyIA

        Ignacio if you are still following this thread here is an interesting link from SCMP. It reports on a paper that argues that Covid-19 made the jump from bat to human directly years if not decade(s) ago and went undetected until it had a mutation that made it easier to spread and more deadly.

        Coronavirus: pathogen could have been spreading in humans for years, study says

        The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 might have been quietly spreading among humans for years or even decades before the sudden outbreak that sparked a global health crisis, according to an investigation by some of the world’s top virus hunters.

        Researchers from the United States, Britain and Australia looked at piles of data released by scientists around the world for clues about the virus’ evolutionary past, and found it might have made the jump from animal to humans long before the first detection in the central China city of Wuhan.

        Though there could be other possibilities, the scientists said the coronavirus carried a unique mutation that was not found in suspected animal hosts, but was likely to occur during repeated, small-cluster infections in humans.

        Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institute of Health, who was not involved in the research, said the study suggested a possible scenario in which the coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing disease in people.

        “Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human to human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease,” he said in an article published on the institute’s website on Thursday.

        1. Ignacio

          Thank you TrolyA. The possibility of jumping directly from bats to humans cannot be precluded by yet this has not been demonstrated with any of the known human coronavirus. The problem with this paper is that it makes a hypothesis based on very few data available about SARS CoV 2 related sequences. Researchers that have worked extensively with CoVs say that much more data is needed and what we know is not enough to infer the natural history of SARS CoV 2.

    3. rusti

      As I understand it, there are probably two CoVs involved, and it looks like one is a bat CoV, providing the backbone of the virus, while the other may be pangolins, providing the spike protein.

      I was trying to understand this as well. Is it a prerequisite for an intermediate host to have had a different coronavirus independently? Apologies if this has been linked here before, but I saw someone link to this 2007 paper, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection, which seems to support that idea according to my B+ in high-school biology-credentialed reading:

      Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination (375), which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.

      1. xkeyscored

        So far as I know, an intermediate host between bats and us is not a prerequisite, though there are reasons to suspect there was one.


        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I don’t think it is for epidemoilogical reasons, but to explain how it got to Wuhan. Not many bats near Wuhan. But another theory (given the earlier origin) is it emerged somewhere else and was brought to the wet market.

          1. Ignacio

            Some studies with serological testing before this epidemics showed that some people without connection with SARS outbreaks in China harbour antibodies against SARS CoVs. This suggests that humans are constantly challenged by zoonotic coronavirus but in many cases these do not progress into outbreaks with human-to-human spread. Given the mobility of humans and the traffic of potential wild intermediary hosts the species jump may have occurred in any province in China and evolved in one or some humans in an unknown location close or far from Wuhan. The outbreak in the wet market suggests that some of the first human subjects might be involved in activities related with the wet market: animal farming, transport, processing… precisely those more exposed to such zoonotic challenges. Yet, it could be simply by chance that the initial outburst occurred there. Not having good data allows for all kind of speculations.

            The problem with serological testing is that it only allows to search for known CoVs and new CoVs with different immunological properties would be missed. So, I believe that NATs assays with universal CoV primers should be done as a surveillance procedure in regions and individuals considered at risk to detect pre-emptively novel CoVs in humans.

    4. redleg

      Epidemiologist Mike Osterholm at the Univ. of Minnesota has been saying that the virus moved from Pangolin to human in November.
      I don’t know where he got his information, but he’s one of the world’s experts in researching potential pandemics. I have also personally worked with him (15 years ago)- he doesn’t sugar coat anything.

  2. chuck roast

    As I understand it, there was a huge pig pandemic (if that’s the right word) in China recently. The demand for protein didn’t disappear with the swine die-off. It was simply re-directed. Wildland farming would meet the Occam’s razor test.

    1. xkeyscored

      I fail to understand this bit: “Pork accounts for more than 60% of total meat production in China (broiler meat excluded).” If demand for meat protein were redirected, that’s the first place I’d expect it to go. Maybe I’m missing something.

      1. Ignacio

        Because Chinese meat production statistics only show data on beef, pork and lamb meat production in 2019 (plus eggs) but I couldn’t find data for 2019 on broiler meat. Neither on wild animal meat. Anyway given the huge loss in pork meat production and the spike in imports of frozen pork meat I doubt broiler meat could compensate and if egg production could be used as a proxy it didn’t. The FAO report was quite informative.

        1. xkeyscored

          Wouldn’t it be easier to ramp up broiler meat production quickly than to increase wildlife farming? Chickens are fast to mature and well understood.

    2. Ignacio

      This could be the case. A bat CoV jumped into a yet unknown mammal species, may be several years ago, and it acquired in this species new properties that later could help it jump to humans. It was waiting for a chance and it could be the case that more wild animal farm activity helped this chance to occur. Just a possibility.

  3. Beans

    Identifying the fine details of the mutation &infection chain for 1 virus will be hard to impossible, but taking the 30,000 feet view – from Against the Grain by James C. Scott – out of some 2000 diseases that are contagious in humans, some 1700 have been from farming / domesticating animals – and likely many of the other 300 odd too. Whether bat eating, pangolin eating, dog eating or pig eating is irrelevant – intensively eating animals = getting diseases.

    1. Ignacio

      I don’t think it would be so hard. There are powerful mol. biol. techniques that allow for rapid screening. Think of metagenome analysis. You don’ need to find the exact subject 0, only to find the closest relative available. But I guess closing lots of farms and sacrificing many wild animals helped to erase prints.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks Ignacio. I’ll be pointing all my Chinese friends to this article, since so many of them have failed for the Chinese governments determination to insist it came from America, specifically a cyclist during the Wuhan Games. I only hope that the many good Chinese scientists working on this don’t find themselves under unbearable pressure to get with what is becoming an official narrative.

    I think it is quite significant that these diseases are consistently arising in that region of upland China between northern Vietnam and Yunnan and not, for example, similar areas in India, where of course there is significantly less animal husbandry and farming of wildlife.

    The combination of a hot climate with population pressure on species rich wildlife areas, along with the raising of a wide variety of animals, both domestic and wild, in close proximity to humans and each other is a timebomb for diseases. The Chinese (and Vietnamese) governments have known this for a long time, but have chosen to do nothing for internal political reasons (the popularity of rare meats with senior officials being a significant one I believe).

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      I’ve traveled in a number of those border highlands, China-Vietnam-Laos-Burma, and let me assure you, you don’t drink anything but Coke or beer, be danged careful what you eat (pro tip: congee or rice porridge is pretty hard to contaminate), wear long sleeves and Deet and keep taking your damn malarials, in spite of the nasty side effects. I am a pretty sturdy bloke (leeches love my blood though), but pretty much every foreigner I was traveling with got sick as a dog somehow. Far worse than India.

      A comparable disease factory seems to exist in the northern Great Lakes region of central Africa, Uganda-Congo. I was supposed to travel there for work, but didn’t end up going. But they had me written up to take all kinds of meds. In addition to Ebola and the usual mosquito borne fevers, you’ve got both major kinds of tsetse fly, overlapping in that place.

      I believe there’s a similar pestilence belt around Bolivia in Latin America but I don’t know much.

      These districts all seem to possess a certain combination of high humidity, tropical vegetation and elevation (hot days, cold nights).

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Confirming your views, my parents spent a month in China in 1989. They said Wuhan was the filthiest place they ever visited, including Nairobi. Your comment confirms my suspicion that that area continues to be lax about hygiene basics.

    2. Angie Neer

      I always appreciate your comments, but I’m not sure of your intended meaning in the second sentence. Are you saying that your Chinese friends have not adopted the Chinese govt’s narrative?

      1. Oregoncharles

        Can’t be sure, but I think “failed for” is a typo (autocorrect?) for “fallen for”. Hard to make sense of it otherwise.

  5. The Rev Kev

    In all likelihood, the first great flu pandemic in 1918 had its origin in Kansas, specifically Haskell County. It was only because a World War was going on that made young guys leave that County to go to US Army training camps carrying the flu with them – and the rest is history. If there had been no World War going on, that lethal flu would likely have burn itself out in that unlucky County. My point is this. So maybe, just maybe, you have outbreaks of these viruses going on all around the world in Asia, Africa, South America, etc. from time to time but unless it gets loose, you never really hear about them.

    Local measures may help limit such outbreaks. I heard a story how in some places in Africa, if you come down with something like this, you are isolated in your hut and food & drink are left in front of your hut daily. Either you eventually recover and walk out or else you die and they burn down your hut. If true that story, it may help explain how diseases are restricted in some areas.

    1. Ignacio

      I followed links to this piece of an article. By the end he makes connections between industrial farming + wild animal farming and deforestation that are very interesting. I wish I had read this before.

      So while the distinction between factory farms and wet markets isn’t unimportant, we may miss their similarities (and dialectical relationships).

      The distinctions bleed together by a number of other mechanisms. Many a smallholder worldwide, including in China, is in actuality a contractor, growing out day-old poultry, for instance, for industrial processing. So on a contractor’s smallholding along the forest edge, a food animal may catch a pathogen before being shipped back to a processing plant on the outer ring of a major city.

      Spreading factory farms meanwhile may force increasingly corporatized wild foods companies to trawl deeper into the forest, increasing the likelihood of picking up a new pathogen, while reducing the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains.

      1. Susan the other

        “…while reducing the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains.” Our main problem, the problem causing these problems, is human over-population. Just reading this post I’m wondering if we humans aren’t creating our own transmission chain. And we could fix that with wildlife-human firewalls. Wildlife preserves as well as human reservations. The Bronx zoo just discovered their tigers had Covid-19, most likely acquired from one of their handlers. So what are the chances that those tigers will culture their own new strain with a deadly tiger tag and give it right back to us?

  6. mpalomar

    Thanks for the intriguing thoughts. Some days ago NC linked an article by Yasha Levine, a very general review of possible origins and I think another in the New Republic. Plagues are not new in human history and I do recall reading a book by Laurie Garret (heard a recent interview with her and she was hopping mad) from the mid 1990s regarding the threat of a coming plague so there’s been plenty of warning.

    One can look to a number of factors, Industrial farming, the release of poorly regulated and understood gen mod products, wild animal markets that contain multiple incubator enhancement factors, habitat disruption as human populations push into the last wild habitats to promulgate badly thought out development projects, endless wars (AIDS and bushmeat) and of course global warming, releasing possible perma frost locked pathogens etc. One can assume there are also scattered bio warfare labs secretly at work.

    Tracing the single cause of covid-19 will be interesting and helpful but it is fairly clear basic ongoing human operations have grown to a planetary disrupting scale and covid19 is what one aspect of planetary environmental collapse looks like. Unfortunately the ‘there is no alternative’ model for the production end of civilization still holds sway.

    For all of humanities achievements one can look quizzically at the mounting failures to react and adjust to negative data feedback (well covered in yesterdays post). I noticed another recent SpaceX launch collapse failure and puzzle the perverse delusion involved in that whole extremely misguided space tourism and colonization fiasco by the alleged best and the brightest. It conjured a picture the earth might impart to an impartial non terrestial observer, surrounded by a belt of orbiting space junk and layers of pollution, vast emerging islands of plastic in dying, warming oceans, pandemics and pockets of murderous high tech warfare usually visited upon the poorest of the poor by the richest of the rich.

  7. Harvey

    Maybe science then stuff-ups caused this one. I have seen quite a reasonable argument that ties Covid-19 back to research being done at a Wuhan institute which studies SARS like viruses, just down the road from the wet markets.
    A specific researcher who studies these viruses brought a specimen back of a virus that was infecting locals in the Chinese boonies. Back at the laboratory staff accidently spilled the virus solution on themselves and had to self-isolate. The researcher hasn’t been seen since apparently and her bio on their website has vanished.
    Info gleaned from the Institute website asking for staff to join them to study novel virus in December, plus other stuff.
    Also, some of the earliest cases of Covid-19 had never visited the wet markets, and that research has been around for a couple of months.
    So that might explain why the Chinese have gone dark on the subject. No government ever wants to admit to a stuffup with such dire consequences.

    1. Ignacio

      Yeah, stupid scientists! I told you, I told you so! If you do research you are going to spread a disease! Thinking that farming and marketing hundreds of thousands of wild animals can have any relation with this doesn’t make any sense. It must be one of those few stupid scientists in Wuhan or elsewhere.They are so stupid!

        1. SpainIsHot

          Maybe when this is over we should organize a meetup for the Spanish chapter of NC –if they have them in the States and in the UK, why can’t we have one in Spain too? ;-)

      1. Harvey

        Haha, I’m probably not anti-science given my honours degree in chemistry. But making anything sacrosanct, including science, religion, economics, tiddlywinks, leads to hubris and mistakes and bad decisions Everybody should be held to account.

        Apparently accidents in high level biological research facilities all over the world is not unknown.

        Some years ago, it was reported in the local press that our national science organisation, in my city, had been doing research on tinkering with common gut bugs and one morning came in to find every experimental animal was stone cold motherless dead. Not an experimental outcome they were expecting. Put the wind right up them.
        So they burned the lot and decontaminated the building.
        And then nothing more was said. Maybe a bit like Wuhan at this point.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Ignacio has explained at length in past comments why the lab theory is utterly bogus. I’m not going to bother hoisting it. He went very patiently though the VERY VERY limited and specific agents the labs use, which have very clear markers, versus the ginormous number of agents in a bat’s guts.

          This is CT. We have zero tolerance for it. Cut it out.

        2. skippy

          “Haha, I’m probably not anti-science given my honours degree in chemistry.”

          Maybe that would be accentuated with a PhD in the Philosophy of Science, because nothing you just offered has any similarity to it.

          At a loss to see “Haha” or special pleas to “probably not” rhetorical passe bolted onto an un-quantified [BA] in chemistry.

          Don’t know if I’m having a David Friedman flash back or not …

      1. Harvey

        I have an online report from someone who posted and then translated the Chinese from the Wuhan institute, and is fluent in Chinese. But I don’t read or speak Chinese so I’m taking this on trust I admit.

        But this wouldn’t be the first research institute anywhere in the world to screw something up, or not realise the danger they were in from what they were doing.

        1. skippy

          I have a penchant for those that utilize authoritarian claims on royal science and then blithely two step into hearsay or unfounded ideological driven conclusions as an end goal.

    2. xkeyscored

      Without prior research into SARS and similar viruses, we’d have been starting from scratch on this one.

      1. Oregoncharles

        There’s a dilemma. On the one hand, you’re right. In fact it’s too bad they didn’t pursue the vaccine for SARS 1 that supposedly was developed.

        On the other hand, there’s no such thing as perfect containment. Stuff breaks, people screw up, viruses are incredibly tiny. I’m reminded of a PBS science show, some years ago now, about a scientist who was (IIRC) trying to transfer the virulence of the 1918 flu into a modern bird flu.

        My personal reaction was a bit volcanic; I think such research is incredibly irresponsible, even if there’s something to be learned. But the tone of the reporting was not at all judgemental – and apparently no harm was done.

        Going back to Harvey’s scenario: there’s a case to be made that the “researcher,” if they existed (no documentation), made little difference, that in China, if it’s out there, it will soon be in here. But the presence of a major viral research lab so close to the origin of the outbreak is an uncomfortable coincidence. Reminds me of the Skripals case, next door to Britain’s main chemical warfare lab. Or the anthrax case here. No reason to think it was deliberate, in Wuhan, but accidents are one of the main reasons for opposing nuclear power.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      I think we have to be careful here to distinguish between two different ‘theories’:

      1. That the Covid outbreak is associated with some sort of lab based genetic tampering and research (in China or the US or elsewhere), which got out of hand.

      2. That the outbreak may have been caused or exacerbated by some mishandling of natural viral materials during research in Wuhan university or elsewhere.

      There is no specific evidence to support either theory that I am aware of.

      As we know from Ignacio and others, theory (1) has been specifically disproved by researchers in the field (as much as is possible at this stage, and falls within the realms of tin hat stuff. It should only be discussed insofar as it is necessary to deal with bad ideas that are circulating.

      Theory (2) is possible, insofar as anything associated with the early stages of this virus is possible – and there are certainly credible stories that at least one lab in Wuhan was engaged in collecting and studying Sars related viruses. However, I’d suggest its largely irrelevant – we know that almost certainly the virus jumped from a bat to humans, possibly via other species, probably somewhere in Hubei or western China, and then started human to human transmission in a ‘hot spot’, probably in a wet market in Wuhan or the surroundings. If some clumsy researcher inadvertently aided this process it will be an important lesson for all biology labs, but I don’t think it adds very much to what we know about the dangers of these diseases in general.

  8. Bo

    I found the claim that Chinese people are eating more wild meat as the pork production is down unconvincing. This is not what I heard from my parents and relatives in China. The pork meats are getting expensive but you can still get them. The wild meat is actually more expensive than pork meat. It’s more a culture thing as many people especially in southern China like the exotic tastes.

    1. Ignacio

      Unfortunately little information is available on wild animal farms and, of course, no statistics on wild animal meat production in China but I found the quote from The Guardian quite damning. Just before SARS CoV 2 outbreak, Chinese authorities were pushing to extend the industry of wild animal farms. Could be a way to diversify and cover potential losses from hog farms? Nobody says that hogs ceased to exist and indeed hog meat imports increased in 2019 in China and yes, eating exotic animals is a tradition in China but if wild animal farming was expanded it even doesn’t matter if it was to cover shortfalls in hogs or not but the chances for zoonotic diseases would have increased.

      1. Susan the other

        Just by imagining how much sewage is dumped into the ocean from China’s southeast provinces, I think it is reasonable to stop eating sushi.

      2. Bsoder

        I lived in China for several years in cities and out in country never saw or heard of anyone eating a bat. Even tried to get someone to make a dish out of one. They all, without exception, everywhere thought I was nuts.

      3. Jabbawocky

        I agree with Bo. I have a Lot of contacts in Wuhan and I never heard of replacing pork with wild meat. I was in Wuhan last year and you could get pork in any restaurant. I saw farmed snake on menus though. Anything exotic is likely to be much more expensive than pork.

  9. rd

    My understanding is that the 1918-19 flu is believed to have started or mutated either in Kansas (first wave) or small town in coastal France (second wave). Basically a bird probably pooped into a pig pen on a small farm that had lots of human-pig interaction and then lots of people milling around cooped up in tight quarters allowed for lots of viral things to happen.

    I think the primary reason that we have seen a couple of recent ones from China is because China is now part of the rest of the world, which it really wasn’t before until about 20-25 years ago. They could very well have had some of these popping up regularly, but Maoist policies would have limited internal travel and certainly little interaction outside China, so it would have run its course in a village or province and then died out. Now it can quickly expand to the entire globe in a matter of weeks.

    Same with things like MERS. More international communication means that things like MERs can spread. Ebola has popped up periodically in Africa but for a long time there was little communication between villages or regions, so a village might die but it wouldn’t go beyond it. That started to change in the past few decades.

    So Bush II was right in setting up to address pandemics because what used to be local matters 30 years ago can now be global disasters.

  10. Henry

    So after listening to this ( 10 yr old video from Nutritional Facts on how factory farming increases the risk of deadly viruses I did some research on Corona virus and Chickens. It turns out that a corona virus causes respiratory issues, IBV, in chickens that results in huge financial loses for factory chicken farmers. Now IBV is a type 1 strain and SARs is a type three strain so SARS does not infect chickens and vise versa, but interestingly chickens are vaccinated to prevent IBV and the attenuated virus that was genetically engineered to create a large immune response in chickens without infecting them is ta da “This spike protein, from the IBV strain Beaudette, belongs within coronavirus group 3 and is well-established to be cleaved at the S1–S2 boundary via a furin cleavage site (26).” Now I haven’t compared the sequences of the recombinant vaccine and SARs, but I suspect they differ or someone else would have pointed this out and I don’t know if the GMO virus is actually being used as a vaccine for chickens, but it is scary, at least to me, that the possibility exists.

    It also seems that we are following recent news that are military may be unintentionally selecting for a deadlier version of the virus as they did the 1918 flu as they are not paying attention to history:

    Comparison of IBV to SARS

    GMO corona virus vaccine:


    1. Ignacio

      The IBV vaccine is not a GMO but a mild variant from the wild type virulent strain obtained by serial passage through in vitro cultured cells. Please, read the articles you cite. Second the presence of similar cleavage sites in two distantly related virus doesn’t say anything about their origin. This was simply used as a proof that SARS CoV 2 S protein could be similarly cleaved. The fact that researches use previous known work on virus entry (IBV or RSV) to analyse the mechanisms of SARS CoV 2 entry by no means can be used to grant lab conspiracies. This only means there are lot’s of things you and me ignore about virus and are being researched.

      1. Henry

        I thought I was being clear that I was not implicating that this was the source of SARS as I have no idea what is actually being used to vaccinate chickens in China nor if the fact that it has a spike structure that is homologous to SARS makes it equally infective in humans or the impact of the modified replicase that is spliced in. Apparently you do? Yes the articles do not describe what was patented and are for reference to understand the patent. Did you read the patent?
        “In a fifth aspect, the present invention provides a method for making the coronavirus according to the first aspect of the invention which comprises the following steps: (i) transfecting a plasmid according to the fourth aspect of the invention into a host cell; (ii) infecting the host cell with a recombining virus comprising the genome of a coronavirus strain with a replicase gene; (iii) allowing homologous recombination to occur between the replicase gene sequences in the plasmid and the corresponding sequences in the recombining virus genome to produce a modified replicase gene; and (iv) selecting for recombining virus comprising the modified replicase gene.”
        Again. I am not suggesting this ever made it out of the lab or that it necessarily dangerous to humans, though I suspect that has never been tested. I think we ignore the scientific consensus from the Asilomar conference at our peril.

  11. David Laxer

    Are there any studies which explain the genetic changes that allow the virus to remain infections for 3+ days?
    It is my understanding that previous Corona viruses are viable for 4-8 hours (not 3+ days on stainless steel and/or plastic.)

  12. phichibe

    I follow many folks on YT about China and two of the sharpest are two guys who lived in China for over a decade, did numerous videos of traveling by motorcycle across China (how I discovered them), speak and read fluent Chinese, are married to Chinese women, and eventually left because of CCP unhappiness over some of what they reported on (so-called ‘ghost’ cities of empty high-rise apartment buildings, new buildings falling apart, etc). They’re now living in the US.

    One of them just posted a YT video documenting what he’s uncovered about the Wuhan Biology Institute not the actual name, I can’t recall it fully) and its research programs, guided by some of the recent academic papers published by staff there, and especially by job postings listed last Fall seeking Ph.D level candidates to work on novel coronaviruses. He then goes on to focus on one staff researcher in particular, a woman with a Ph.D from a western university (I think French) who was listed on the Institute’s web site until last December, when all mention of her was suddenly eliminated. The American ex-pat believes this woman was “Patient 0” of the Corona 19 epidemic, and speculates that she’s probably dead, a casualty of a lab accident or poor practices. (IIRC, the US CDC sent a delegation to the Wuhan lab in 2017, which left after concluding that the facilities were inadequate for handling the pathogens being studied there).

    I will be the first to stipulate that this is not this guy’s area of expertise but he’s pretty sharp, he knows China and Chinese, and as important he stays in touch with a lot of Chinese friends and acquaintances using secure VPNs to exchange info that might otherwise get people in trouble. I suspect he was directed to this woman by someone who knows the backstory, but that’s just a surmise. Note that he does not speculate that this was a deliberate release or an engineered virus, as some have. He’s just done a lot of research and it’s very interesting what he’s uncovered. FWIW, he shows many screen captures, some in Chinese, some in English from the Wuhan institute. People with high-res screens might be able to capture the URLs of the pages, or if you’re interested I suggest contacting him (don’t know if he has direct links, but he does have a Patreon account). Anyway here is the URL


    1. Ignacio

      The list of people that we can trust with insider insights that know the secrets of the epidemics seems endless.

      1. Bsoder

        Ignacio – really excellent job you have done here and for the last couple of months. (Well forever) It’s always a joy to read and maybe hear the thinking of a real scientist at work. And you are gracious and humble as well. Your family and friends must be very proud of you. Keep the faith.

  13. John k

    I know a number of people in HK, one of which sends out stuff blaming US for virus.
    IMO the danger is if China convinces Chinese we did it, then there’s no justification to forbid wild markets and unprotected butchering, just as they did do following SARS.
    Maybe rinse, repeat every decade or so.

  14. Jack Parsons

    “civet cats – a species pinpointed as a carrier of Sars”

    Civets are a parallel genus to cats. The fruit-eating civet was the vector for SARS- a really odd species that comes from a large family of carnivores, but like the giant panda converted to a specialist vegetarian diet.

    I’m citing this nit because it speaks of someone half-remembering things and typing them into the Guardian.

  15. Curtis Fromke Orthomolecular Medicine. The Chinese got a shipment of 50 tons of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Maybe they are on to something. Medicine in the U.S. has never embraced the use of vitamin C. It seems as though it would be something to consider. There are a lot of research articles that have been ignored by our medical profession by in large. A lot of the discussions concerning care of patients and the medical staff could be helped significantly if this blind spot were discovered.

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