Origins of Covid-19: the delicate investigation around the first known case in Wuhan

Who was the first person infected with Sars-CoV-2? The question has haunted and divided scientists since the onset of the pandemic in late 2019. And the clues are slim. Until now, the first documented case was a man named Chen. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this 40-something, originally from Wuhan, had officially contracted the new coronavirus on December 8, 2019. How and where did he get it? Nobody knows. In its report on the genesis of the pandemic published in March, the WHO gives some details about this patient, called “S01”: he is an accountant and did not travel before his infection. In addition, he did not frequent the Huanan market – considered today as the place of super spread of the epidemic -, but a modern supermarket called RT-Mart, located on the other side of the Yangzi River, which cuts through the city in them.

An article by a leading scientist, virologist Michael Worobey, published Thursday in the prestigious journal Science questions this version. According to him, the mysterious Mr. Chen did not fall ill on December 8, as the UN organization claims, but on December 16. A deduction made from a video interview found, a case described in a scientific article, and a hospital medical record that match this 41-year-old man. By postponing the date of this man’s infection by eight days, the first known case of Covid-19 would therefore be a saleswoman working at the Wuhan animal market who fell ill on December 11. Asked by the New York Times, researcher Peter Daszak, a staunch defender of the animal origin thesis of the virus and who was among the experts sent by the WHO to Wuhan in January 2021, admitted that “the date of December 8 was a mistake “.

The clues already transmitted in our columns cast doubt on the first documented case. In their report, the WHO provided the genetic identifier for S01: EPI_ISL_403928. A kind of specific barcode for each blood sample analyzed. However, this series of figures corresponds in Chinese databases to a 61-year-old market employee in Huanan who fell ill on December 20, 2019. Chen’s profile corresponds more to another genetic identifier but, again, there was a catch. According to data shared by Beijing, this suspect No. 1 had officially fallen ill on December 16, and not on 8. Given these inaccuracies, the WHO in July acknowledged “editing errors” in the joint report with China last month March, and changed the code for patient S01, which is now called EPI_ISL_403930. A slight correction that is not likely to speed up the search for the famous zero patient, but that says a lot about the effectiveness of the investigation into the origin of the pandemic and the incessant obstacles raised by Beijing.

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The reinforced animal thesis

Stating that Mr. Chen is no longer the first known patient is not neutral, as it has contributed to highlighting the thesis of a laboratory leak as the origin of Covid-19. Especially since it had no connection to the Huanan market. For virologist Michael Worobey, this discovery, as well as the analysis of the first cases of Covid-19 in the city, clearly tip the balance towards an animal origin of the virus. The debate has raged since the beginning of the pandemic among experts, who still seek two years later to unravel the mystery of the origin of the virus, in the absence of definitive evidence. Michael Worobey himself was one of the 15 experts who published an article in the journal Science in mid-May asking for serious consideration of the hypothesis of a laboratory leak in Wuhan. He writes today that his research “provides strong evidence for a live animal origin of the pandemic” from this market.

One of the criticisms of this theory was based on the following argument: since the health authorities alerted about cases of a suspicious disease linked to the market as of December 30, 2019, a bias was introduced that led to the identification of more cases there than elsewhere, drawing attention to it. To get around this bias, Michael Worobey analyzed the cases reported by two hospitals before the alert was raised. However, these cases are also closely related to the market, and those that are not are geographically concentrated around it. “In this city of 11 million people, half of the first cases are related to a place the size of a football field,” said Michael Worobey, interviewed by the New York Times. “It becomes very difficult to explain this trend if the epidemic has not started in this market.”

From Wuhan to Paris

Will we ever meet the first person infected with Sars-CoV-2? “We cannot say with certainty who is’ patient zero ‘, Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University in Washington, laments L’Express. It is very likely that it is from China, but not’ it is not proven. “. Despite the intense desire to understand the origins of this virus, it is not surprising that gray areas persist. According to experts in phylogenetics, a discipline that studies virus strains to reconstruct their origin, the global SARS-CoV-2 epidemic appeared in humans between late August and early December. Problem: While in June, Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the centralized medical monitoring system allows Beijing to be aware of a new disease in just six hours, which happens here completely unnoticed. The oldest known cases, discovered retrospectively by analysis of chest X-ray archives, were hospitalized on November 16 in Colmar in France and on November 17 in the Hubei region of China, although these analyzes ex post, without serological analysis , they were not allowed to certify 100% that they are Covid-19 patients.

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In France, a team from Inserm thus discovered antibodies a posteriori against Covid-19 in 13 blood samples taken between November 2019 and January 2020. For Marie Zins, scientific director of the project, this study “shows that the virus was circulating in Europe at that time. Time “, perhaps in a less aggressive way, but” that does not mean it was originally from Europe. ” “What we know,” he continues, “is that whenever we have had access to viral samples from patients with the disease as we know it, it was the Wuhan virus.” Will we ever know the end of the story? The task, without a doubt, will be delicate but essential.

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