A blow to the lab-leak theory: First known COVID patient worked at Huanan seafood market, scientist concludes

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Uh, well, I guess it’s … possible that a scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who was already infected with COVID due to a lab leak went to buy dinner at the Huanan market and infected a vendor there.

Coincidentally?

Or maybe there was no lab leak and virologists were right all along in suspecting that the virus arose naturally in the wild and made the leap from animals to humans at the market.

We’ll never know, of course. But this new study from virus “detective” Michael Worobey is notable for multiple reasons, starting with the fact that he signed the famous letter to Science magazine in May demanding that the lab-leak theory be given fresh consideration. Until then, the idea that the pandemic might have been caused by a lab accident was taboo among scientists, effectively quashed by Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance and his cronies as the stuff of conspiracy theories. Worobey helped break the embargo on that.

Then he went sifting through the earliest data he could find from Wuhan in December 2019 and concluded that, actually, a zoonotic transfer at the Huanan market is the likeliest explanation after all.

Read through his new study about it, which isn’t terribly long. He makes three key points. One is that raccoon dogs were being sold at the market, an interesting finding since the original SARS virus in 2003 was also found in raccoon dogs. China has reason to believe from hard experience that that animal is capable of infecting human beings with a deadly novel coronavirus. As chance would have it, “most early symptomatic cases were linked to Huanan Market—specifically to the western section where raccoon dogs were caged,” Worobey notes. Was a raccoon dog the source of the pandemic?

Next, Worobey considered the possibility of “ascertainment bias” in early epidemiological studies in Wuhan that linked cases to the Huanan market. That’s the idea that Chinese scientists may have initially gone looking for people infected with COVID in and around the market because it seemed like a logical candidate for the source of the outbreak. If so, they would have been letting their assumptions about the virus’s origins prejudice their investigation; it may be, for instance, that there were actually many more COVID cases around the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the time but scientists were too busy sniffing around the market to notice those. Worobey found, however, that 10 of the earliest 19 people hospitalized for suspected COVID in Wuhan had direct or indirect links to the market, even before Chinese scientists began investigating the site. That’s circumstantial evidence that the initial outbreak really did happen there, even before researchers assumed it.

Finally and most importantly, Worobey seems to have smoked out a critical error in the WHO’s report on the pandemic’s origins. It was reported back in early July that the first known COVID patient in Wuhan was a 41-year-old accountant who had symptoms on December 8. Crucially, the accountant did *not* have ties to the Huanan seafood market, raising doubt about the theory that the virus jumped from animals to humans. If the virus emerged zoonotically and made the leap at the market, we’d expect the accountant to have shopped there or to have friends or family who worked there, etc. He didn’t. If he was the first known case, how could the virus have came from Huanan?

He wasn’t the first known case, Worobey believes. After digging through local reports and interviews, he concluded that the accountant went into the hospital on December 8 due to a dental problem, not the coronavirus. Not until December 16 did he experience symptoms of COVID, an infection he might have acquired at the hospital itself. The actual first known case discovered by Worobey was a woman who became symptomatic on December 11. She worked as a vendor at … Huanan seafood market.

Does that mean she was patient zero, the very first person to be infected with COVID? Almost definitely not, Worobey notes. She was merely the first known one. But the fact that she and a majority of other early hospitalized patients had some sort of link to the market points to that site, not the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as being the epicenter of the pandemic:

Additionally, the earliest known cases should not necessarily be expected to be the first infected or linked to Huanan Market: They probably postdated the outbreak’s index case by a considerable period (10) because only ~7% of SARS-CoV-2 infections lead to hospitalization (11); most fly under the radar. Similarly, it is entirely expected that early, ascertained cases from a seafood market would be workers who were not necessarily directly associated with wildlife sales because the outbreak spread from human to human. The index case was most likely one of the ~93% who never required hospitalization and indeed could have been any of hundreds of workers who had even brief contact with infected live mammals.

“The Huanan Seafood Market is many miles, and across the Yangtze River, from the virology institute,” WaPo points out. “Few of the early documented cases were anywhere near the laboratory.” All of this is highly circumstantial evidence, based on reports in a country whose media famously can’t be trusted because it’s beholden to an oppressive regime eager to cover up its own mistakes with COVID. One critic of Worobey’s findings went so far as to dismiss them as “hearsay” in a comment to WaPo. But go look at the map at the end of his study. It really would be some coincidence if a lab leak at the WIV ended up producing a cluster of cases around the other likely locus of the initial infection, the market across the river.

Then again, how much traffic is there around the Wuhan Institute of Virology versus how much traffic is there around the market? It’s not hard to imagine someone getting infected anywhere in Wuhan, including the lab, and visiting the market soon after to unwittingly spread the virus. The market must have been one of the most heavily trafficked places in the city, no?

One last point. How did the WHO report from this summer manage to get the critical detail wrong about who the first known patient was? Worobey managed to figure out that it likely wasn’t the accountant. Why couldn’t the WHO’s team? As much as we’d all like to chalk that up to innocent error, the WHO’s servile relationship with China means we have to wonder if it was truly an error or a deliberate distortion aimed at exonerating China for starting the pandemic. The lab leak theory isn’t the only origin story for COVID in which Beijing is at fault, after all; ever since SARS made the jump from animals in 2003, the regime has been criticized for not closing down wet markets to prevent another new outbreak from happening. China ignored that criticism until it was too late. The idea that an accountant with no ties to the market — or the Wuhan Institute of Virology — was patient zero conveniently let China off the hook for keeping Huanan market open. Was that an oversight by the WHO or did they do their patrons in Beijing a favor?