China or Italy? Bats or pangolins?
More than 11 months since the first cluster of coronavirus cases were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, there are still questions about the exact origins of the virus and how it jumped from animals to humans.
Experts believe the zoonotic COVID-19 disease came from a Chinese wet market selling wild animals. New research, however, has emerged which indicates the virus was circulating in Italy in September, adding another layer to the mystery that has so far eluded scientists.
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A study published earlier this month in the scientific magazine Tumori Journal found coronavirus antibodies in 11.6 per cent of 959 asymptomatic people enrolled in a prospective lung cancer screening trial between September 2019 and March 2020. Italy’s first official COVID-19 case was detected in Lombardy on Feb. 21 this year.
“Our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 circulated in Italy earlier than the first official COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in Lombardy, even long before the first official reports from the Chinese authorities, casting new light on the onset and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Italian researchers said in their Nov.11 report, which is yet to be peer reviewed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) told Global News it has reviewed the paper and would reach out to the authors to discuss and arrange for further analyses.
Dr. Sasha Bernatsky, senior scientist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, called the study “very interesting and provocative”, but said it was inconclusive.
“Unfortunately, we have yet to really understand the antibody response to COVID and how durable it is,” she told Global News.
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In September, a WHO-led international investigative team was formed to study the source of the novel virus, the possible role of an intermediary animal host and how the virus was transmitted to humans.
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Researchers believe that SARS-CoV-2, which is the seventh known human coronavirus, originally came from bats as the reservoir hosts. Some studies also suspect an intermediary link to the pangolins, a mammal found in Asia and Africa.
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Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist and professor of global health at the University of Toronto, said the entire chain of events of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, emerging in a Wuhan market has not been proven, but the Italian findings did not change the fact that the virus was of animal origin.
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“What caused this was likely wild animal markets and none of that has changed,” he told Global News.
“What I do think is there’s going to be years of back and forth before we really have a smoking gun as to exactly what caused it and what the chain of events was.”
Politicizing the pandemic
Since the start of the pandemic, China has faced a lot of criticism from Western leaders, especially U.S. President Donald Trump, accusing Beijing of a lack of transparency and not reporting its outbreak in a timely fashion.
In May, a groundbreaking investigation by Sam Cooper of Global News found that before China informed the world of the potential lethality of the novel coronavirus in late January, it told embassies and consulates around the world to secretly buy up all the personal protective equipment they could.
Meanwhile, a Harvard Medical School study analyzed hospital traffic and search engine data to suggest that the virus may have been circulating as early as August. China has dismissed the findings as “ridiculous.”
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Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist at the University of Montreal, said as with previous experiences with other outbreaks, a new virus needs time to fully adapt to new hosts — in this case, humans — which could offer an explanation for the delay in detecting it.
“The political element was very, very strong, especially regarding the origin, because China was accused of not giving the true story, not reacting immediately, not informing the World Health Organization on time regarding the outbreak,” he told Global News.
“For a virus to adapt to humans and become (a) human-to-human transmissible virus, that could take several months, that could face a couple of weeks, all depends on the viral genetic background of the population around.”
More than 17 years after severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus-caused respiratory illness, was detected in China in 2003, its exact origins still remain a myth.
The same could be the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“How an infectious disease crosses the animal-human barrier is a riddle that can take years to solve,” the WHO says.
Bowman agreed, adding: “It’s going to take time before we really get to the bottom of it.”
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