Coronavirus may not have originated at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market

We know that at some point, somewhere, the infamous coronavirus crossed over from the animal kingdom to humankind.

Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market has so far been the most widely reported place of the virus’s conception, but new evidence suggests that the answer might not be that simple.

Wuhan Huanan seafood markets
Photo – AP Photo/Dake Kang

New evidence has surfaced, suggesting that Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market may not have been where the coronavirus first spawned.

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Huanan Seafood Market sells both seafood and livestock including live wolf pups, salamanders, snakes, camels, and much more. So far, the marketplace is believed to have been the birthplace of the coronavirus. With a mass of animals and humans densely populating the area, the bustling wet market seemed like an obvious place for the virus to first transfer from animal to human. However, there is evidence that may suggest the marketplace isn’t all to blame.

Going back to late January, a study published in The Lancet discovered that 41 patients in the Hubei area were infected with the mysterious infection (now known as COVID-19). 66% of these patients had been exposed to the Wuhan Market weeks before.

Yet the report found that the first case of the virus was an elderly man who hadn’t been to the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market. Speaking to the BBC Chinese Service, Doctor Wu Wentuan from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, described that the elderly man basically never went out because of his Alzheimer’s disease, with him living “four or five buses from the seafood market.”

The virus’s genome backs up this story. A study in the journal Nature Medicine, which looked at the genome sequence data of the virus, found that it may have been circulating undetected for several months before it came to the attention of health authorities. In this case, the cluster of cases which were linked to the seafood market would have not have represented the virus’s origin.

Speaking to Science Mag, the author of the study and evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, Kristian Andersen described:

“The scenario of somebody being infected outside the market and then later bringing it to the market is one of the three scenarios we have considered that is still consistent with the data. It’s entirely plausible given our current data and knowledge.”

It seems certain that the virus first appeared somewhere in China’s Hubei province. But even if it didn’t originate at the Huanan Seafood Market, it may be impossible to ever discover exactly where it did.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped people from guessing.