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New Research into COVID-19’s Origins Emerges

Workers in protective suits take part in the disinfection of Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, March 4, 2020. (cnsphoto/via Reuters)

A big start to Thanksgiving week: A deep dive into new research contending that the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced back to raccoon dogs sold at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China; Peng Shuai appears in Beijing, but there’s no answer as to whether she’s being coerced; and how little we know, so far, about the horrific vehicle rampage in Waukesha, Wis.

Who Was COVID-19’s Patient Zero in Wuhan, China?

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that, “First Known Covid Case Was Vendor at Wuhan Market, Scientist Says”:

The scientist, Michael Worobey, a leading expert in tracing the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona, came upon timeline discrepancies by combing through what had already been made public in medical journals, as well as video interviews in a Chinese news outlet with people believed to have the first two documented infections.

Dr. Worobey argues that the vendor’s ties to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, as well as a new analysis of the earliest hospitalized patients’ connections to the market, strongly suggest that the pandemic began there.

“In this city of 11 million people, half of the early cases are linked to a place that’s the size of a soccer field,” Dr. Worobey said. “It becomes very difficult to explain that pattern if the outbreak didn’t start at the market.”

Before we go any further, let me state that Worobey is a smart guy who knows these subjects at great length, depth, and breadth; that he’s put a lot of work into this investigation; and that he is not a Chinese-government stooge or apologist. I hold no grudges over him thinking I “spectacularly miss the point” in an earlier post even if I think he missed my point — that if the outbreak was first detected in a city, then its jump into humans was likely close to or inside that city, and that the virus coming in from somewhere else, far from the city, is unlikely.

But if half the early cases in an outbreak can be traced back to one small geographic space, does that point to the outbreak starting at the market, or does that point to the market being a key early spreading event but not the first? The latter seems likely, and some would contend it is now effectively proven. If “Half of the early cases are linked to a place that’s the size of a soccer field,” in Worobey’s words, that means the other half aren’t. Where did those other infected folks catch the virus?

In his paper, Worobey argues that those other cases are connected to the market, through some other asymptomatic or undiagnosed carrier, and we just can’t see how they’re connected yet:

If Huanan Market was the source, why were only one- to two-thirds of early cases linked to the market? Perhaps a better question is why would one expect all cases ascertained weeks into the outbreak to be confined to one market? Given the high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 and the high rate of asymptomatic spread, many symptomatic cases would inevitably soon lack a direct link to the location of the pandemic’s origin. And some cases counted as “unlinked” may have been only one or two transmissions away, as exemplified by the second patient identified at Zhongnan Hospital. That so many of the >100 COVID-19 cases from December (1) with no identified epidemiologic link to Huanan Market nonetheless lived in its direct vicinity is notable (see the figure) and provides compelling evidence that community transmission started at the market.

The problem is that, if all or most of those other early cases could be connected to the market through undiagnosed carriers . . . how do we know some undiagnosed carrier didn’t bring the virus into the market? The same logic that can be used to explain cases not connected to the market can also be used to argue the market wasn’t the point of origin. As Daniel Lucey, an infectious-disease specialist at Georgetown University, succinctly summarized it, the number of early cases that can’t be connected to the market suggests that “the virus came into that marketplace before it came out of that marketplace.”

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve known that a significant percentage of those infected by SARS-CoV-2 do not show symptoms — anywhere from 30 percent to 35 percent or 40 to 45 percent. It’s really difficult to track down “Patient Zero” if the first person infected never showed any symptoms, and it’s really hard to trace the path of transmission back to Patient Zero if patients two, four, and seven never showed any symptoms. And another chunk of those individuals infected with COVID-19 have only mild symptoms — so we’re left to wonder which individuals in Wuhan had mild sniffles in November or December 2019 and thought it was just a cold and never knew they were among the first cases of a novel-coronavirus pandemic.

One of Worobey’s key conclusions is “that most early symptomatic cases were linked to Huanan Market — specifically to the western section where raccoon dogs were caged — provides strong evidence of a live-animal market origin of the pandemic.”

But if the virus started from someone catching it from an infected raccoon dog at the market . . . why has no one found an infected raccoon dog? If this virus spreads so quickly among human beings, why is it so hard to find any preexisting cases of infection among any other mammal? Why has no one found earlier outbreaks among animal poachers? Why were animal smugglers not the first patients reported in this pandemic? (Or were they indeed the first infected, but they were asymptomatic or their symptoms were too mild to ever get them in front of a doctor?)

Worobey has illustrated problems in the official WHO chronology of infections:

In January of this year, researchers chosen by the W.H.O. visited China and interviewed an accountant who had reportedly developed symptoms on Dec. 8. Their influential March 2021 report described him as the first known case. . . .

In Dr. Worobey’s revised chronology, the earliest case is not Mr. Chen but the seafood vendor, a woman named Wei Guixian, who developed symptoms around Dec. 11. (Ms. Wei said in the same video published by The Paper that her serious symptoms began on Dec. 11, and she told The Wall Street Journal that she began feeling sick on Dec. 10. The W.H.O.-China report listed a Dec. 11 case linked to the market.)

For what it is worth, both the WHO report and Worobey’s revised chronology contradict one of the first detailed examinations of the early cases, published in The Lancet in January 2020: “The symptom onset date of the first patient identified was Dec 1, 2019. None of his family members developed fever or any respiratory symptoms. No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases.”

Also for what it is worth, the South China Morning Post reported back in May 2020 that the Chinese government had determined that the first case of someone in China suffering from COVID-19, can be traced back to November 17, 2019. That report stated that, “following the Nov. 17 case, about one to five new cases were reported every day and by Dec. 15, the total infections reached 27.”

Maybe that report is wrong. But the South China Morning Post is believed to have good sources in the Chinese government; at minimum, it seems safe to conclude that someone in the Chinese government believed back in May 2020 that the first case could be traced back to November 17.

Whatever data the Morning Post saw that became the basis for that report, that information has never been shared with the public. Perhaps it’s nonsense, or maybe it was a misdiagnosis of some other more routine viral infection.

One of the big problems here is that the governing authority over this area — the People’s Republic of China — has never shared everything it knew, or thought it knew, about the start of this pandemic. In fact, more than a year later, it still refuses to reveal certain information: “[World Health Organization] investigators, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Chinese city of Wuhan, said disagreements over patient records and other issues were so tense that they sometimes erupted into shouts among the typically mild-mannered scientists on both sides.”

Maybe the Chinese government has refused to share this information because it’s just habitually secretive.

Or maybe the Chinese government has refused to share this information because it points to unsanitary conditions at a wet market setting off a global pandemic that killed more than 5 million people.

Or maybe the Chinese government has refused to share this information because it suggests that a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory” — as identified by visiting U.S. scientists in January 2018 — led to an accident at a lab that was doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats, setting off a global pandemic that killed more than 5 million people.

Even with Worobey’s research — which he was touting back in July — we’re left with the same series of amazing coincidences needed to believe the zoonotic theory: After the Wuhan Institute of Virology collected samples of the virus found in nature that is closest to SARS-CoV-2; and after EcoHealth Alliance staff collected samples of viruses in China without wearing masks or other personal protective gear; and after EcoHealth Alliance proposed working with the WIV to “introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites” into SARS-like viruses to make these viruses more infectious to human beings; and after EcoHealth Alliance stated it had non-deliberately made viruses more virulent during its research work with the WIV; and after American officials who visited the WIV in 2018 reported to the U.S. State Department that the Institute’s labs suffered from “a serious shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a [Biosafety Level] 4 laboratory”; and after research published by the WIV in 2018 examined the villagers who lived closest to the coronavirus-carrying bats in Yunnan Province and concluded that natural “spillover” from bats directly to humans is “relatively rare”; and after the WIV kept live bats in its walls, a fact that EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak initially denied; and after conducting partially U.S.-funded gain-of-function research for years . . .

. . . an entirely separate and unrelated novel coronavirus found in bats that is enormously contagious to human beings just happened to appear a few miles away from one of the three sites in the world doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats.

International Olympic Committee: Hey, Everything Seems Fine with Peng Shuai!

As far as the International Olympic Committee is concerned, there’s no reason to worry about Peng Shuai: “The IOC added that Ms. Peng was safe at home in Beijing and asked for privacy in the wake of the sexual-assault accusation, which the organization didn’t address. The call came at the IOC’s request and was set up through the Chinese Olympic Committee, according to a person familiar with the exchange.”

The IOC never misses an opportunity to suck up to autocratic regimes, does it?

But Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon isn’t buying it:

I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing. While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient. As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.

You know what we need to watch for? Steve Simon is prioritizing the safety of a young woman over $1 billion in Chinese funding for future tournaments in that country. He’s making a lot of enemies right now — and I suspect a lot of people would like to see Simon either pressured to change his mind or replaced.

Horror in Waukesha

As of this writing, we don’t know why the driver of a red SUV plowed into the Waukesha Christmas Parade, killing five people and injuring more than 40 others.

Some will watch the horrific videos of the rampage — one moment the school bands are marching, the next it’s just screams and chaos — and suspect terrorism. The sight is indeed similar to the 2016 Nice truck attack, the 2017 Westminster attack, the 2017 London Bridge attack, the 2017 Barcelona attack, and a 2017 attack in New York City, among others.

Police have a person of interest in custody but will not say if that person was the driver.

Popular perception of who and why someone killed a lot of people tends to get set early and is hard to alter. Some people still believe that hatred of gays was the motive in the Pulse nightclub shooting, even though the perpetrator literally pledged loyalty to ISIS on the phone to police. The Oklahoma City bombing is often cited as “Christian extremism,” even though for most of his life Timothy McVeigh described himself atheist or agnostic. (He did take Last Rites before he was executed, and the circles he ran in undoubtedly featured Christian Identity extremists. McVeigh can be characterized as a right-wing or anti-government terrorist and extremist, but he cannot accurately be described as a Christian terrorist, because religious faith was not his motive.)

The horror in Waukesha might be motivated by a desire to terrorize in the name of a political or religious cause, or it might be some unrelated criminal action, such as a suspect fleeing police. What we’re seeing on social media right now is this reflexive instinct to take something horrible — innocent people killed and badly hurt at an event that’s supposed to be joyous — and fit it into a narrative that squares with our preexisting views of the world: It was those jihadists. It was those right-wing extremists. It was those left-wing extremists.

The irony is that the perpetrator being who you think it is doesn’t change anything. You don’t win a prize if the perpetrator turns out to be a member of the group you instinctively suspect.

ADDENDUM: You know what’s kind of amazing? The sheer number of people who, upon seeing my usual Sunday rage tweets about the New York Jets, either feel the need to inform me that they’re still boycotting the NFL because of the National Anthem kneeling from a few years ago — that’s nice, I don’t care whether you watch the NFL or not — or feel compelled to tell me that I’m somehow sinning against all that is good and righteous by watching football like I always do, because the NFL is “woke.” That’s odd, as I don’t remember asking you what you thought, or for suggestions on how to spend my Sundays. I don’t give you grief about how you spend your weekends; why do you feel entitled to weigh in on how I spend my time?

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