June 8

Where Did the COVID-19 Coronavirus Come From?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

A review published in the December 2019 issue of the journal Infectious Disease Clinics of North America concluded: “The SARS epidemic demonstrated that novel highly pathogenic viruses crossing the animal-human barrier remain a major threat to global health security.” Little did the authors know that by the date of publication, just such a virus was brewing. “[I]t will not be surprising if new coronaviruses emerge in the near future,” read another review a few months before. “[I]t is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China.” These warnings are not new, dating back more than a decade. “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-like coronaviruses in… bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.” A time bomb that just went off.

Now I hope you can understand how Dr. Li’s “7 SARS cases confirmed …” forewarning was so ominous. That’s why I did the last video about SARS, because it gives some context. It wasn’t the SARS coronavirus he found, though (the cause of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome), but instead a virus that would come to be known as SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019. Before it became known as SARS-CoV-2, though, it was just the “Wuhan seafood market pneumonia virus.”

According to the director of the Chinese CDC, ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic was the Hua’nan Market in Wuhan, China, where most of the first human cases could be traced back. Described as the largest wholesale seafood market in Central China, the Hua’nan Market reportedly also sold 75 species of wild animals. If you want to see what that part of the market looked like, you can go to bit.ly/HuananMarket, but I’m not going to show the photos because some may find them disturbing.

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Although there are fish coronaviruses, 90 percent of the samples that turned up positive for the virus were found in the section of the half-million square-foot seafood market where those photos were taken—the part that trafficked in exotic animals sold for food.

The fact that the genetic sequences of the viruses obtained from some of the early human victims were 99.9 percent identical, despite the rapid mutation rate of coronaviruses, suggests the current pandemic originated within a very short period from a single source. Although there have been documented reports of the original SARS coronavirus escaping from laboratories, the fact that the COVID-19 coronavirus was optimized for binding to human cells in a novel way suggests that the new pandemic we now face was not made in some laboratory but rather natural means, though to lock in the necessary mutations the “animal host would probably have to have a high population density.”

The new coronavirus appears to share a common ancestor with the original SARS virus, for which it is about 80 percent identical, but it’s more than 95 percent identical with a coronavirus found in a bat in 2013. The current thinking is that the COVID-19 virus originated in bats, but then jumped to humans only after passing through an intermediate host. The pandemic emerged in winter, after all, when most bat species in Wuhan are hibernating, and no bats were reportedly found at the Hua’nan Market. There were labs in the proximity of the market where bat viruses might have escaped, but the virus was found in environmental samples taken directly from the market. Unfortunately, the market was closed and cleared before the animals themselves were tested, complicating the forensic search for the source. In the case of SARS, the intermediate host between bats and human-to-human transmission was the civet; in MERS it was camels. What was the intermediate host for COVID-19? The leading candidate for the stepping-stone civet of the current outbreak is the pangolin.

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Also known as scaly anteaters, pangolins look like a cross between a sloth and a pinecone. But between the demand for their meat as a delicacy and their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Coronaviruses from two separate batches of diseased pangolins being smuggled into China were found to be about 90 percent identical with the COVID-19 virus. Not only is the pangolin the only other mammal found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2-like viruses, but the critical receptor-binding region of the pangolin coronavirus spike protein is virtually identical to the human strain. Work is still underway, but whichever the animal was, that one meal, that one medicine, may have ended costing humanity a few trillion dollars and a few million lives.

Given the role exotic animal trafficking appears to have played in the current global health crisis, some in the international scientific community have called for a ban on the sale of wild animals and a closure of live animal markets. Even infectious disease experts within Wuhan started calling for “completely eradicating wildlife trading.”

On January 26, 2020, the Chinese government responded, announcing a total ban on the trade and sale of wild animal meat, reportedly shutting down or quarantining almost twenty thousand wildlife farms across seven Chinese provinces, though the ban is only set to be temporary. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, Chinese officials enacted a similar ban on the trade of civet cats, but within months the ban was lifted, and the animals were back on the menu.

Much of the wildlife trade was already illegal in China in the first place, with flaunted bans dating back more than a decade. The Chinese pangolin, for example, is officially considered a critically endangered species.

That’s part of the draw, though, as a serving of “extra rare” meat may project prestige and wealth. A thriving black market already exists, and it could potentially be driven further underground by government action. “The ultimate solution,” wrote a group of Chinese scientists, “lies in changing people’s minds about what is delicious, trendy, prestigious, or healthy to eat.” Having spent the bulk of my professional life trying to get people to eat more healthfully to prevent chronic disease, I can certainly relate.

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Even in the unlikely event the current ban was to be made permanent and was enforced effectively, there remains a glaring loophole: The ban exempts the use of wild animals for traditional Chinese medicine. So, while it’s currently illegal to eat pangolin meat, it’s not illegal to eat other pangolin parts. How ironic that the pandemic appears to have arisen in a market selling remedies purported to promote immunity and longevity. Pangolin blood is said to “promote…circulation.”

For only about $30 a pound, anyone can go online and buy Chinese bat feces to treat their eye disorders. While the drying of excrement would presumably inactivate coronavirus, the trade and handling of live and recently killed bats for use in traditional remedies could infect people directly, or certainly introduce opportunities for cross-infection with susceptible hosts.

Now it is easy for xenophobic Westerners to condemn cultures consuming rhino horns, tiger bones, and pangolin scales, or 21st century manifestations such as mukbangs (livestreaming broadcasts of people eating bat soup and the like). But, as I discuss in my new book How to Survive a Pandemic (all proceeds I receive for which are donated to charity), the last pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu virus, arose not from some backwater wet market in Asia, but rather was largely made-in-the-USA from industrial pig operations in the United States. So, for the emergence of SARS-CoV-3, we may need look no further than our own plates.

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