WHO: No conclusive origin for COVID

A cat pauses to look at visitors to a temple in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province in 2021.

LAST year, as debate raged over the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins, scientist Michael Worobey called for an investigation into the possibility that the virus was bred at a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and escaped.

Worobey’s informed recommendation echoed demands from less informed people — politicians and pundits — to probe the possibility that Chinese authorities released the deadly pandemic, either accidentally or, according to some conspiracy theories, deliberately.

But the evolutionary biologist from the University of Arizona could do something about it, and he did.

Last month, Science magazine reported the results of three studies — two of which included Worobey among their authors — into the origins of COVID.

The studies concluded with reasonable certainty that the virus entered the human community through a zoonotic leap from infected animals at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, to humans.

“(A)lthough these new analyses don’t all reach the same conclusion for how COVID-19 was sparked, each undercuts the theory that the virus somehow escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, long a focus of suspicions,” the magazine reported Feb. 28 in an article by science writer Jon Cohen.

Cohen’s article quotes Harvard University evolutionary biologist William Hanage, who said the study results “will be taken as a blow” to the prospect that COVID was the result of a laboratory leak.

“They substantially move the needle on the origins in the direction of the market,” he said.

Worobey, who agreed with those politicians that the possible connection between the Wuhan lab and the pandemic was worth investigating, is now leaning in the direction of a zoonotic origin.

In one study, scientists examined subtly different strains of the virus found in infected people, which they say indicated that COVID-19 jumped twice from animals to humans. Another study provided geospatial analysis that showed the market as the pandemic’s “epicenter.”

Two of the studies — the ones that included Worobey — identified, “the Hunan market as the unambiguous epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The conclusions are not unanimous within the evolutionary biology community. Jesse Bloom, who has said his peers have too easily denied the lab-leak possibility, said he is not convinced.

And he has some reason to be skeptical. In a secretive totalitarian — and that’s a little redundant — society like China, no conclusion can be completely trustworthy.

Science and specifically scientists rarely offer us conclusive black-and-white answers. More often, it allows for the exposure of new evidence by hedging its language, and that’s the case.

But these three studies, according to those who know the field, provide strong evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged the world and caused more than 6 million deaths, came from the Huanan Market, not from the Wuhan Institute.

Source: Science Magazine — https://www.science.org/content/article/do-three-new-studies-add-proof-covid-19-s-origin-wuhan-animal-market

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