The first known case of COVID-19 was a vendor at a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan – not an accountant whose case contributed to speculation the deadly bug could have leaked from a lab, according to a new US study.
Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, wrote in the journal Science that the first known case of the illness was a woman who had worked at the Huanan market — who reported symptoms on Dec. 11, 2019, according to Agence France-Presse.
An accountant who was widely thought to be the first person with COVID-19 reported that his first symptoms appeared on Dec. 16, Worobey said.
The confusion over who reported symptom onset first was caused by a dental problem the accountant had several days earlier on Dec. 8.
“His symptom onset came after multiple cases in workers at Huanan Market, making a female seafood vendor there the earliest known case, with illness onset 11 December,” the study said.
Most early symptomatic cases were linked to the market, specifically to a section where raccoon dogs were caged, according to the study, providing strong evidence of a live-animal market origin of the pandemic.
The origin of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — remains a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
A World Health Organization-led team spent four weeks in and around Wuhan with Chinese scientists and said in a joint report early this year that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal — but that further research was required.
Worobey was one of the roughly 15 experts who published a column in Science in May demanding serious consideration of the thesis that the virus had leaked from a Wuhan lab.
The Trump administration and, later, intelligence officials in the Biden administration pointed to the possibility of a virology research lab in Wuhan, as Chinese government officials sought to deflect blame – leading to more uncertainty about the origins.
Worobey, who specializes in tracing the genetic evolution of viruses, said that what he found strengthens the theory that the virus originated in animals sold in the market — much like the first SARS outbreak in 2002-2004.
Other research helped the virologist map the earliest cases that clusters them all around the market.
“That so many of the more than 100 COVID-19 cases from December with no identified epidemiologic link to Huanan Market nonetheless lived in its direct vicinity is notable and provides compelling evidence that community transmission started at the market,” Worobey wrote.
“It tells us that there’s a big red flashing arrow pointing at Huanan Market as the most likely place that the pandemic started,” he told CNN. “The virus didn’t come from some other part of Wuhan and then get to Huanan market. The evidence speaks really quite strongly to the virus starting at the market and then leaking into the neighborhoods around the market.”
Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and one of WHO’s investigators, said he “was really impressed with the detective work” by the expert.
“Everything he says about the Dec 8th case fits with what we experienced in Wuhan on the WHO trip — there was a cluster of early cases coming into hospitals in late December and clinicians worked back to the presumed date of onset,” Daszak told CNN in an email.
“They just made a mistake with this person because he likely visited hospital for another reason. This puts the first known case as a Huanan market worker, not the accountant who lived near one of the Wuhan lab campuses,” Daszak wrote.
“This is now adding to around 10 pieces of other scientific evidence that I’ve seen since the end of our WHO work, all of which point towards an origin through the wildlife farms and markets. No single piece of evidence is totally conclusive, but when you lay them all out, it really tips the balance towards the ‘natural’ origin,” he added.
With Post wires