The Perfect Enemy | Where the Covid Outbreak Began
August 17, 2022
Read Time:7 Minute

Two studies are giving us insight into the roots of the pandemic.

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The New York Times


Two studies published yesterday in Science magazine are giving us insight into the roots of the pandemic.

The research, which was previewed in February, has now been peer-reviewed and revised, and concludes that the wet market in Wuhan, China, is the likely epicenter of the emergence of Covid. For more, I spoke to my colleague Carl Zimmer, who covers science.

What did these new studies conclude?

These scientists are arguing that it’s most likely that the pandemic got its start from infected animals in the Huanan market in Wuhan, China. The authors suggest that SARS-CoV-2 arose from bats passing on the virus to some kind of intermediate animal. It could be, say, a raccoon dog. Or it could be other kinds of animals that are sold at wildlife markets. From there, it was passed on to people. When they looked at the earliest cases of Covid, they concluded that the cases centered in the neighborhood around the market.

How did they come to that conclusion?

One study looked at what evidence there was of the presence of the virus in the market. The scientists discovered that there seemed to be a correlation between where the virus was in the market and where wildlife was being sold.

The other study is an analysis of the genomes of viruses from early cases. It concludes that there were at least two different spillovers from some animal host into people. The earliest one happened in mid-November 2019, and the second one happened within days or weeks of that.

They also did some statistical analysis, which led them to conclude that there were not a lot of hidden, undetected Covid cases before December 2019. So they argue that there was most likely an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in animals that were being sold at the Huanan market, and people were getting infected more than once — at least twice, maybe more times — with this virus. Then, later in December, it took off.

What does this mean for the lab-leak theory?

The authors of this study do not conclude that their evidence points to a leak from a lab. And people who are advocating a lab leak took place will have to explain all of this research. If the authors of these new studies are correct, then there were at least two spillovers of this virus, both of which were at the Huanan market. So if the virus was in a lab miles away, how did that lead to these patterns that these scientists are seeing?

What are some of the outstanding questions about the origins of the virus?

The ultimate origin of this virus still has a lot of questions around it. But scientists are zeroing in on the kinds of bats that carry these kinds of coronaviruses, and they’re looking at certain areas in China, and in Southeast Asia, that seem to be hot spots for these kinds of coronaviruses.

I recently wrote an article about efforts by researchers who have been looking at bats in caves in northern Laos, and doing surveys of their viruses. In 2021, they found some new species of coronaviruses that turned out to be very closely related to SARS-CoV-2. They’re not direct ancestors, but they are giving us clues about this group of viruses from which SARS-CoV-2 evolved.

What’s next for the search for the virus’s origin?

The W.H.O. has put together a second group to look into Covid’s origins. It’s moving very slowly. The group has a list of things that it wants to know. It wants to get more information about possible viral outbreaks in Wuhan in late 2019 and more information on wildlife, among other things. But that all depends on the cooperation of the Chinese government, and so far there’s not much indication that it will.

In China: George Gao stepped down as head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday after a five-year tenure.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The BA.5 surge is a reminder that the pandemic is not over. But how best to live with the continued presence of Covid when you’re so very tired? The Times’s Well desk has some guidance.

Find your new community Covid indicators. Home testing has complicated the recording of case numbers, blurring real-time tracking of the virus. Instead, experts recommend checking the local news and tapping into your social networks. When more of your close contacts are getting Covid or being reinfected more frequently, it’s a good signal to take precautions.

Max out your vaccines and boosters. Vaccines provide excellent protection against serious illness, and booster shots can amplify those benefits. But fewer than half of Americans have received boosters, and less than a third of adults who are eligible for their second booster — those who are immuno-compromised or above 50 — have received it.

Wear masks, and not just indoors. Wear good quality masks in public places. Experts agree that the outdoors can be considerably safer than indoor spaces. But even outdoors, the closer people are, the higher their risk of catching the virus. At bigger gatherings, such as outdoor concerts or weddings, you should wear a mask and monitor yourself for new symptoms for a few days afterward.

Keep rapid tests on hand — and use them. Bookend social events by testing before and three to five days after large gatherings. Each household can order three rounds of free tests — or 16 tests in total — from the government.

If you’re traveling, find out how to get treatment. Set aside some money, if possible, and read your health or travel insurance policies carefully to see which expenses are covered if you have to extend your trip because of Covid. And do a little research into clinics and pharmacies at your destination. If you are at high risk for Covid complications, or may be immuno-compromised and at risk for lower vaccine efficacy, you can talk to your doctor about getting the monoclonal antibody treatment Evusheld before you travel.

My wife and I are professional jazz musicians. From March 2020 until January 2022 we were homebound, performing no live shows and subsisting on generous donations from friends and fans. My wife and I wear masks everyplace we go indoors except our own home. It’s a twofold requirement: We can’t afford to expose our parents with various health issues to the virus. And now that our performing has started to come back, we can’t afford to contract the virus and quarantine, missing one or more gigs. We thought when everything opened up again, it would be easier. On the contrary, these past seven months have almost made us wish we could isolate again. Trying to juggle our family and career and keeping ourselves and everyone we encounter safe has exhausted us.

— Jeff Barnhart, Mystic, Conn.

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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back Friday — Jonathan

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