Live animal markets likely source of pandemic, new research indicates

A large market in Wuhan, China, where food and live animals were sold in late 2019, is likely the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, a pair of new studies suggest. 

Conclusions from a pair of preliminary studies published Feb. 26 suggest the virus was likely present in live mammals sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and spilled over into workers or customers, The New York Times reports. 

"When you look at all of the evidence together, it's an extraordinarily clear picture that the pandemic started at the Huanan market," Michael Worobey, PhD, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a co-author of both new studies, told the Times. The two studies collectively span 150 pages. 

The findings from Dr. Worobey and team suggest a scenario in which two spillover events — both lineage A and lineage B of the virus jumped from live mammals to humans — occurred at the market. The findings align with a separate study published Feb. 25 from scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention that involved environmental samples collected from the market in January 2020. Both virus lineages A and B turned up in those samples. 

The new research findings refute another theory that the virus only arrived at the market after spreading around Wuhan, since the only COVID-19 cases tied to the market early in the pandemic appeared to be from lineage B, and lineage A evolutionarily would have had to come first. 

While some scientists not involved with the research found the new evidence compelling, others said gaps still remain, pointing to the fact that the new studies did not pinpoint an animal at the market that spread the virus to humans, the Times reports. 

The new findings are separate from those shared in February 2021 by the World Health Organization team responsible for investigating the origins of the coronavirus. The international team of scientists concluded the virus "most likely" originated in animals before spreading to humans and that it may have been circulating both inside and outside of the market, suggesting it was not the original source of the outbreak. 


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