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New study finds animals known to be infected with coronaviruses sold at Wuhan wet market for years


A new study that remained unpublished for more than a year found that animals known to be carrying coronaviruses were sold at local wet markets in the 2010s.  

Researchers from the Chinese government’s Key Laboratory of Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, the University of Oxford in the UK and the University of British Columbia in Canada collected data from several markets in Wuhan and photographs from the Huanan seafood market. 

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study found that several species including civets, dogs, minks, raccoons and more – infected with different types of coronaviruses – were sold for years, reported Bloomberg.

For the past several months, there has been back-and-forth speculation about the origins of COVID-19 and whether it came from wild animals or was manufactured in and accidentally escaped from a laboratory.

The findings seem to support scientists’ original theory, which is that the virus occurred in nature before it jumped to humans. 

A study from researchers in China, the UK and Canada that went unpublished for more than a year has been posted online looking at four markets in Wuhan. Pictured, from Huanan seafood market in Wuhan: (a) king rat snake (b) Chinese bamboo rat (c) Amur hedgehog being sold

The report finds that more than 38 species of wild live animals were sold for food and as pets from the markets in Wuhan. Pictured, from Huanan seafood market: (d) raccoon dog (e) Marmot and hedgehogs, and (f) hog badger being sold

The report finds that more than 38 species of wild live animals were sold for food and as pets from the markets in Wuhan. Pictured, from Huanan seafood market: (d) raccoon dog (e) Marmot and hedgehogs, and (f) hog badger being sold

The study was originally conceived as a way to study the origins of a tick-borne illness that had sickened hundreds in China’s Hubei province years earlier, according to Bloomberg.  

Lead author Dr Xiao Xiao, a virologist at the Key Laboratory of Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, collected data from four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.

When doctors began to report in January 2020 that a mysterious pneumonia-like disease was sweeping through Wuhan, Xiao collaborated with other scientists and began combing through his data.

They found that more than 47,000 transactions of 38 species of wild live animals – including mammals, birds and reptiles – during the two-and-a-half year period. 

The animals, which were sold for food and as pets, were kept in poor hygiene conditions and were infected with a range of zoonotic diseases, which are infectious diseases that jump from a non-human animal to humans.

Among the disease include influenza, rabies and several coronaviruses including those that originate in birds and in fowl.

One of the infected animals, a masked palm civet, is a species linked to the 2003 outbreak outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a cousin of the new virus.  

The team put together a manuscript and sent the report to a journal in February 2020, but it was rejected, reported Bloomberg. 

‘We’d imagined that the journal we sent it to would say: “Fantastic! Of course we want these data out as quickly as we can. The World Health Organization would be absolutely thrilled to receive this information,”‘ co-author Dr Chris Newman of the University of Oxford, told the news website.

‘[The journal] did not think [the study] would have widespread appeal.’

Newman said the study provided solid evidence that live animals were being sold as food at the center of the outbreak and should have been published in the early days of the pandemic.

Several early reports, including a team from Beijing and WHO researchers sent to China, seem to imply the outbreak originated from the Wuhan market.

However, the Chinese government switched gears in summer 2020, denying that wet markets exist in China and that the virus originated from wild animals being sold there.

Many of the animals, especially at the Hunan seafood market, were sold infected with diseases, including coronaviruses that originate in birds and in fowl. Pictured: Huanan market in April 2020

Many of the animals, especially at the Hunan seafood market, were sold infected with diseases, including coronaviruses that originate in birds and in fowl. Pictured: Huanan market in April 2020

The findings may offer a clue in the origins of COVID-19 and whether it jumped from animals to humans or escaped from a lab. Pictured: CDC illustration of the virus that causes COVID-19

The findings may offer a clue in the origins of COVID-19 and whether it jumped from animals to humans or escaped from a lab. Pictured: CDC illustration of the virus that causes COVID-19

‘SARS-CoV-2 could not have possibly evolved in an animal market in a big city and even less likely in a laboratory,” researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science  wrote in a paper released in July, first reported by Bloomberg,. 

The Communist Party has since implied that the virus originated from Europe or even the United states.   

In the paper, Xiao and his colleagues wrote that in the markets he visited, at least 30 percent of the animals had injuries consistent with gunshot wounds or traps, implying they had been caught in the wild.

None of the 17 shops within the four markets displayed an origin certificate or quarantine certificate, ‘so all wildlife trade was fundamentally illegal,’ the paper wrote.

Perhaps, most importantly, seven of the shops were linked to some of the earliest every documented COVID-19 infections, including workers at the Huanan market, reported Bloomberg. 

The researchers say they revised the manuscript twice and sent it to a journal, but it was rejected.

The manuscript was revised again and sent to Scientific Reports in October 2020

Springer Nature, which publishes the journal, sent a copy to the WHO, but to a generic email address regarding unpublished research that went unexamined, according to Bloomberg. 

A copy was also sent to Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead for the WHO, but she missed the original email and never received a follow-up.

Since then, a report from The Wall Street Journal, citing a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report, detailed how three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) sought hospital care in November 2019, months before China disclosed the COVID-19 pandemic,  

The newspaper said the report – which provides fresh details on the number of researchers affected, the timing of their illnesses, and their hospital visits – may add weight to calls for a broader probe of whether the COVID-19 virus could have escaped from the laboratory.   

In late May, President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day review in to the origins of COVID-19, which is set to be published later this month. 



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