The origin story of Covid-19 remains a mystery mired in contentious geopolitical debate. But a research paper that languished in publishing limbo for a year and a half contains meticulously collected data and photographic evidence supporting scientists’ initial hypothesis—that the outbreak stemmed from infected wild animals—which prevailed until speculation that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a nearby lab gained traction.
According to the report, which was published in June in the online journal Scientific Reports, minks, civets, raccoon dogs, and other mammals known to harbor coronaviruses were sold in plain sight for years in shops across the city, including the now-infamous Huanan wet market, to which many of the earliest Covid cases were traced. The data in the report was collected over 30 months by Xiao Xiao, a virologist whose roles straddled epidemiology and animal research at the government-funded Key Laboratory of Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation and at Hubei University of Chinese Medicine.
In May 2017, Xiao began surveying 17 shops at four Wuhan markets selling live wild animals. He was trying to find the source of a tick-borne, Lyme-like disease that had spread in Hubei province years earlier. He kept up monthly visits until November 2019, when the discovery of mysterious pneumonia cases that heralded the start of the Covid pandemic brought his visits to an abrupt end.
As the virus started to explode, Xiao recognized the potential significance of his data. In January 2020, he collaborated with Zhou Zhaomin, a researcher at a wildlife resources laboratory affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, and three seasoned scientists from the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, on a manuscript that was submitted to a journal the following month. (They declined to name the publication.) “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,’ ” says Chris Newman, a British ecologist who’s one of the paper’s co-authors. But it was rejected. “They did not think it would have widespread appeal,” he says.
Had the study been made public right away, the search for the virus’s origins might have taken a different course. Not only did it contain conclusive evidence that live animals were being sold for human consumption at the epicenter of the outbreak, but Newman says he assumes Xiao collected blood-sucking ticks from the wild animals he cataloged. The blood meals of frozen tick samples could be examined for traces of the coronavirus, which would be extremely helpful in identifying infected species prior to December 2019. Xiao didn’t respond to emails requesting comments.
In the first months of the epidemic, local researchers asserted that the new coronavirus resembled a spillover from animals, reminiscent of the emergence of the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in wet markets in Guangdong almost 20 years ago. They also readily acknowledged the presence of “a variety of live wild animals” at Wuhan markets.
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