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https://medium.com/@OttoKolbl/the-thorny-question-of-the-origin-of-sars-cov-2-who-wants-to-find-out-and-who-does-not-b66a02ce4d0a
The thorny question of the origin of SARS-CoV-2: 
Who wants to find out, and who does not?

<https://medium.com/@OttoKolbl?source=post_page-----b66a02ce4d0a---------------------->Otto<https://medium.com/@OttoKolbl?source=post_page-----b66a02ce4d0a----------------------> 
Kolbl
<https://medium.com/@OttoKolbl/the-thorny-question-of-the-origin-of-sars-cov-2-who-wants-to-find-out-and-who-does-not-b66a02ce4d0a?source=post_page-----b66a02ce4d0a---------------------->Jul 
9

Last summer, a person I know took a walk on a 
footpath through wine yards bordered by trees at 
nightfall in Switzerland, close to the village of 
Eclépens, roughly at coordinates 46.656791, 
6.522571. At a place where the tree branches are 
quite low, he had three head-on collision with 
bats. In the third such event, the bat had to 
crawl up his face to take flight again from the 
top of his head. No one got hurt, neither him nor 
the bats, but if we analyze this encounter from a 
virological point of view, we immediately realize 
how important this kind of events are to 
understand the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, 
responsible for the present COVID-19 outbreak.

The bat species suspected of being at the origin 
of the precursor of the SARS-CoV-2 virus belong 
to the Rhinolophus family. They mainly eat 
insects. At night, they find their way and their 
food (flying insects) through echolocation: they 
scream in the ultrasound range and from the echo 
sent back by obstacles and preys, they 
(generally) avoid bumping their heads and manage 
to catch delicious moths and other insects.

Image for post

Photo: Dietmar Nill, Wikimedia, CC BY SA 2.5

 From the virological point of view, the fact 
that bats scream all the time is important, 
because by doing so, they emit the droplets which 
coronaviruses use to spread. In addition, bats 
also communicate with each other. When the three 
bats mentioned above realized that there was a 
danger of a collision with a human forehead, they 
probably screamed the equivalent of “out of my 
way!” followed by a series of expletives, which 
further increased the amount of droplets with 
high viral load. If these bats were infected with 
a virus able to jump to humans, this could have 
been the beginning of a devastating pandemic. 
Some experts believe that coronaviruses are 
transmitted among bats more through feces than 
through saliva droplets, but in the event of a 
violent collision as described above, this form 
of transmissions is equally plausible. Obviously, 
in this incident, no transmission happened. Or 
maybe it actually did. Who knows? Maybe this was 
the moment when SARS-CoV-2 first infected a human 
being? No, of course, this happened in Wuhan. Or 
maybe not, as we will see below.

Such encounters are not rare. I remember that a 
classmate in high school told us that she lived 
in a farmhouse with some bats roosting in the 
attic. When she went up to the attic, sometimes 
she had to duck because a frightened bat fled 
through the staircase and she was afraid that the 
bat could get caught in her hair. This actually 
happens occasionally, and some victims of such 
incidents will have to get their hair cut off in 
order to free the bat, which might also bite and 
scratch. And yes, here too, we are talking about 
Switzerland, not about an “exotic” Asian country.

How is it that for many months now, all the 
Western media tell us that you have to catch a 
bat and take it to a wet market so that a virus 
could jump from bats to humans? Despite not being 
an expert in bat lifestyle, I was well aware of 
the events above at the time when bats became 
notorious as the possible origin of the present 
deadly virus epidemic. In late February 2020, NPR 
reported (1) about an ongoing long term research 
project published in June 2020 (2) showing that 
such spillover events are very common between 
bats and villagers living in the same area for 
many different viruses. However, to my knowledge, 
this has remained the only media report about 
this phenomenon, despite it being crucial for 
understanding the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Many researchers and virtually all media did not 
get the memo and still peddle the narrative that 
without hunting and capturing wild animals, 
spillover events cannot happen (3). The problem 
with this narrative is that those bat species 
which are captured and sold on markets in some 
countries in Asia and Africa and also 
occasionally in the United States (4) are the 
relatively large fruit-eating bats. Extensive 
search has not revealed one single mention of the 
very small insect-eating bats from the 
Rhinolophus family being hunted or captured for 
whatever reason. The body of these bats measures 
some 40–80mm (2–3'’) in length, which makes them 
much too small for human consumption. The 
narratives “This virus comes from a Chinese wet 
market”, or more generally “This virus jumping to 
humans is due to the Asian habit of capturing and 
selling wild animals”, have become some kind of 
founder myth of the COVID-19 crisis. The fact 
that this myth is not based on any solid 
evidence, and that it relies on a lack of 
distinction between two fundamentally different 
types of bats, should send some alarm bells 
ringing. The fact that this myth has led to a 
massive rise in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian 
racism and that nobody does anything against it is even more alarming.

Before the SARS outbreak in 2003, nobody actually 
knew that bats were carriers of coronaviruses. 
Since then, research (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) has 
revealed that not only coronaviruses in general, 
but more specifically -coronaviruses and even 
their subgenus sarbecovirus, to which both SARS 
and SARS-CoV-2 belong, are common among 
Rhinolophus bats not only in parts of Asia, but 
also in parts of Europe and of the Americas. On 
the other hand, most experts have moved away from 
the earlier hypothesis that pangolins could have 
played an active role in the emergence of the present epidemic (11).

So, if the virus could have jumped anywhere from 
bats or some other animals to humans, and if (as 
we will see below) this spillover event did 
probably not happen in Wuhan at the Huanan 
market, where does this virus come from? We don’t 
know yet. However, there are some clues as to 
where we should start our search. To make it 
short: anywhere in the world, with a focus on 
Asia (in particular southwest China and Southeast 
Asia), Europe (in particular southern Europe) and North and Central America.

Some research indicates that the virus strain 
which caused the outbreak at the Huanan market 
was already better adapted to human bodies than 
to any of the possible original or intermediate 
host animals (12). This gives us an indication 
about the time when we must look for some kind of 
precursor virus strains circulating among humans: 
at least several months before the first samples 
were taken in China from patients who got 
infected at the very beginning of December. 
Obviously, such a precursor, being less well 
adapted to human bodies, will spread relatively 
slowly and not have as devastating an impact as 
the present strains. Consistent research shows 
that the most recent know strains of SARS-CoV-2 
replicate faster in human cells and spread faster 
human-to-human than the older ones (13) (14) (15) 
(16). We can therefore expect a relatively slow 
course of illness in the precursors we are 
looking for. Since coronaviruses among bats and 
humans mainly replicate in the upper and lower 
respiratory tract, we must look out for 
respiratory outbreaks where the cause remains unclear.

Finding the precursors of the SARS-CoV-2 virus 
among humans and animals will be an arduous task, 
but it is not impossible. Recently, researchers 
found enough genetic material of the Spanish Flu 
virus from 1918 preserved in permafrost in 
Siberia to rebuild the whole genome sequence. 
Finding the trace of a virus which emerged a few 
months or years ago should therefore be a child’s 
play. Provided that finding this origin is really a priority.

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An early possible trace of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: Virginia/USA, July 2019

For an early but not lab-confirmed trace of the 
precursor of SARS-CoV-2 circulating among humans 
in July 2019, we have got several media reports, 
one from a Virginia-based local TV channel (17) 
followed by many others, including from the 
Washington Post (18) (19) and CNN (20). These 
reports, with the first one dating back to July 
11 2019, mention a respiratory virus outbreak at 
a nursing home in Fairfax County, Virginia, USA. 
Among 263 residents of an assisted nursing 
building, latest figures stand at 63 residents 
ill, 18 hospitalized and three fatalities. 19 
staff also fell ill. Symptoms were mainly cough, 
pneumonia and fever. Two factors can explain the 
numerous press reports: on one hand, the high 
number of infected people in such a short time 
surprised local health officials. On the other 
hand, despite numerous tests performed by the 
federal CDC, the cause of the outbreak still 
remains a mystery; it could not be traced back to 
any of the “usual suspects” for this kind of 
outbreaks like the flu, Legionnaires’ disease, etc.

A reader’s comment below the first Washington 
Post article is interesting, because it links the 
virus to what appears to be a broader outbreak in the local community:

There’s some really nasty lower respiratory stuff 
going around this area. I’ve had it for almost 2 
1/2 week and when I went to my doc last week he 
said he’s been seeing folks with the same thing 
all that week. If anyone with a compromised 
immune system gets this, they could be in trouble.

In addition, the symptoms and the greater 
vulnerability of elderly people all correspond to 
what we would expect from a possible precursor of 
SARS-CoV-2. The way of how I became aware of this 
outbreak is interesting. Apparently, some Chinese 
WeChat users posted screenshots of one of the 
article. A Facebook user from Hong Kong reposted 
one of the screenshots in a discussion about 
COVID-19. When seeing it, I did a fast Google 
search and immediately thought: how could I be so 
stupid as not to think about doing systematic 
Internet searches about possible previous 
outbreaks of respiratory diseases? For now, let 
us keep in mind that the Fairfax outbreak is just 
an indication pointing to a possible precursor of 
SARS-CoV-2. It could be due to a different 
pathogen, but if we take into consideration all 
the information above, the conclusion is clear: 
no matter what it was, the little information we 
have got tells us that we should investigate this 
outbreak further instead of simply ignoring it.

----------


Systematic monthly Google search for “pneumonia outbreak”

We can expect precursor strains of SARS-CoV-2 to 
cause infections of the upper and lower 
respiratory tract. Infections of the upper 
respiratory tract mean a runny nose, a sore 
throat or a cough; such symptoms will hardly make 
headlines. Several attempts have revealed that 
“pneumonia outbreak” is the most promising search 
criterion for covering all possible outbreaks of 
infections of the lower respiratory tract. This 
search was conducted in English, German, French 
and Italian, with only the respective translation 
of “pneumonia” for French and Italian, since 
there is no commonly used equivalent of “outbreak” in these languages.

A general search for these criteria will of 
course return mostly results related to the 
present COVID-19 epidemic. Google (and other 
search engines) provide a search function to set 
a custom time range for the search results. 
Search for any word or combination of words, and 
once the search result has been displayed, click 
“Tools”, “Any time” and select “Custom range”. 
Since outbreaks tend to last several weeks, 
searching for one whole month at a time is quite 
adequate. The first 30 results of each search were analyzed.

The search results returned by such queries are 
quite revealing. The most important point which 
leaps out is probably that for almost all 
results, the cause of the outbreak is visible 
directly in the few lines displayed in the Google 
search page. Modern testing is so efficient that 
whenever an outbreak occurs, it generally takes a 
few days, a few weeks at most, before the name of 
the pathogen is known. Even if performed in 
English, we find information about pneumonia 
outbreaks not only in the US (with many outbreaks 
of Legionnaires ‘ disease), but also from Borneo 
(due to the measles) and a probably false alert 
about a “pneumonia outbreak” from the 
Philippines. Some outbreaks are clearly of 
zoonotic origin, like a multistate chlamydia 
psittacosis bacterial pneumonia outbreak among 
poultry plant workers in the US (21).

A second striking thing is the fact that such a 
research reveals some outbreaks of known viruses 
which suddenly became more virulent and even 
deadly. One such example is an adenovirus 
outbreak (or maybe several separate outbreaks) 
which started in 2016 in the US. Like 
coronaviruses, adenoviruses have been known for 
decades as causing a “common cold”. The fact that 
such a virus suddenly caused several deaths among 
young people gave rise to several media reports 
in 2018 (22) (23) (24). Another outbreak of the 
same virus family among the South Korean military 
got some academic attention (25). With hindsight 
from within the COVID-19 crisis, we might 
probably consider that these outbreaks deserved more attention.

One more goosebump story revealed by this search? 
In 1485, a deadly epidemic ravaged England and 
then the rest of Europe. Merry for dinner and 
dead for supper, as they said. The plague? The 
flu? No, probably a hantavirus which jumped over 
from rodents. The anecdote is from a BBC article 
from November 2018 (26) about “the next deadly epidemic”.

Another puzzling topic is the “vaping lung 
illness” which led to hundreds of patients being 
hospitalized, mainly in the US, in a wave which 
spread like a virus from the border region 
between Illinois and Wisconsin to cover 
progressively the whole area of the country (27) 
and beyond (28). The number of cases started to 
increase in June 2019, reached a peak in 
September and declined until reaching a very low 
level by November (29). So far, experts have not 
been able to reach a consensus regarding the 
cause of this wave. This lead to rumors claiming 
that the “vaping lung illness” was actually due 
to a precursor of SARS-CoV-2 (30), which had a 
mild course of illness unless its impact was 
multiplied by vaping. However, the presently weak 
association between vaping and severe course of 
illness for COVID-19 (31) invalidates this 
theory. We will probably have to be satisfied 
with the partial explanation that the presence of 
vitamin E acetate and the increasing use of 
cannabis products in vaping products played a 
certain role and that there were other factors which we still ignore (32) (33).

----------


Possible early traces of precursors to SARS-CoV-2 in the US

A few search results in the US are more 
intriguing and might point to early traces of 
SARS-CoV-2. An interesting case is Whoopi 
Goldberg’s pneumonia starting in November 2018 
and causing her hospitalization in early 2019 in 
a condition which made doctors fear for her life 
(34). In May 2020, this led her to claim that her 
pneumonia was due to a precursor form of COVID-19 
(35) (36). Should we take her claim seriously? In 
other words: should we take the claim of a show 
business star seriously who claims that she was 
infected with a precursor of COVID-19 in the US 
in November 2018, when all eminent experts tell 
us that this virus emerged roughly one year later 
in China? I might shock a few readers, but the answer is: yes.

The first thing to retain is that Whoopi 
Goldberg’s name popped up within the framework of 
a rigorous scientific sampling process. I don’t 
follow news about celebrities and was not aware 
that she had made this claim. A short article in 
NBC Montana provided by Associated Press (37) 
came up in the systematic Google research 
mentioned above, searching “pneumonia outbreak” 
between March 1 and March 31 2019. Since neither 
the search result nor the article itself 
mentioned the pathogen responsible for her 
pneumonia, I did a further search for “Whoopi 
Goldberg pneumonia”. Actually, the fact that her 
pneumonia was described in the short article as 
having infected both lungs had already caught my 
attention, since this is characteristic for 
COVID-19. In case an article found through a 
search does not mention the pathogen, searching 
further information is part of the standard 
procedure. The most detailed article I found was 
on Medpage Today (34); all the details (slow 
progression of the illness, followed by a 
dramatic degradation characterized by shortness 
of breath, low oxygen saturation) corresponded to 
COVID-19. Even in this detailed article, no 
mention was made of the pathogen responsible for 
the pneumonia, when this is the first things 
which comes up in articles related to a case of 
pneumonia. This search also brought up an article 
mentioning that in 2020, she had claimed that her 
illness in 2018/2019 was a precursor of COVID-19.

Of course we should not take a self-diagnosis at 
face value. We should remember that among the 
first 59 patients clinically diagnosed (including 
by CT scan, etc.) in Wuhan, 41 turned out to be 
actually infected by the virus. Even experts 
(some of whom already had experience with SARS) 
can get a diagnosis wrong before a PCR test. The 
tools applied here, namely a text-analytic 
approach, can never replace a lab confirmed test. 
However, an accumulation of possibly inaccurate 
testimonies can allow us to reach reliable 
conclusions if the testimonies reach statistical 
significance. What is described here is not a 
full-fledged research project. Conducting such a 
project takes at least several months or even 
years. A systematic Google search as described 
here is more appropriately described as 
“exploratory research”, i.e. research which is 
done with as much rigor as possible, but on a 
reduced set of data, with the purpose of 
providing a first overview and helping to 
formulate hypotheses and research questions. What 
we have to retain from Whoopi Goldberg’s 
pneumonia is essentially that the media reports 
from 2019 fit exactly with what we now know to be 
COVID-19 symptoms. Her later assertion that she 
had suffered from a precursor of COVID-19 is 
meaningful mainly because it confirms that the 
attending doctors did probably tell her that they 
did not know which pathogen caused her pneumonia. 
It is obvious from her inviting two attending 
doctors to her talk show that she trusts them. It 
is therefore unlikely that the non-mentioning of 
the pathogen was an omission by the media; it 
makes it more likely that the doctors simply did 
not know. Another information from her 2020 
statements is also interesting: she does not 
speak about her pneumonia alone. Here is her 
precise wording: “I personally think that people 
like me last year had some form of this and it 
evolved into Covid-19.” This clearly expresses 
the belief that she was not the only person at 
that time to have a similar pneumonia, with the 
same unknown origin at the time, which 
retrospectively can be traced to a precursor of COVID-19.

There is actually another article from December 
2018 which confirms this information. It also 
makes it plausible that her attending doctors 
told her about other similar cases. On Dec. 25, 
Cincinnati KUTV carried an article (38) by Liz 
Bonis with the title “Bad cough that won’t quit 
part of winter virus going around.” Here is an excerpt which say it all:

There’s a warning from emergency medicine 
specialists if you have a bad cough that won’t go away.

The flu is on the rise, but another nasty virus is also going around.

For weeks now, there have been reports of a lot 
of illnesses going around, including some 
gastrointestinal things. But the one that many 
are hearing the most about is a bad respiratory infection.

It is different from the flu because the flu 
tends to come on suddenly. With this one, you’ll 
feel those symptoms set in but they can have bad 
complications that can range from just time in 
bed to a visit to the emergency room.

“Recently we have been seeing a big surge of the 
upper respiratory type of symptoms, the cough the 
congestion, the feeling really short of breath,” 
said Dr. Kenneth Patton of Bethesda North Hospital in Cincinnati.

By the time they are wheeled in, Dr. Kenneth 
Patton says that shortness of breath is really evident.

“They are retracting, their ribs are doing a lot 
of work. You can see their neck muscles, you can 
really see that they are having a hard time breathing,” said Dr. Patton.

He says he has big concerns it will continue to 
spread this holiday weekend at the family 
get-togethers, especially to older adults.

“A common cold to you and me, maybe a very 
serious pneumonia or illness for them,” said Dr. Patton.

This is not just about one case, or about a 
limited outbreak. This information comes from ER 
doctors, it matches all the criteria we would 
expect from a SARS-CoV-2 precursor and, most 
importantly, it contains no information about 
which kind of virus it could be, just “another 
nasty virus”, “different from the flu.” We can 
safely assume that as soon as a patient arrives 
at the ER with a pneumonia, doctors will do what 
they can to determine the cause. This is all the 
more true when doctors have to deal with a wave 
of such patients, and this virus is described as 
being quite common: “But the one that many are 
hearing the most about is a bad respiratory 
infection.” If so many ER doctors are hearing 
about this, why does still nobody know what it 
is? Why have there been no other reports later on 
with at least the name of a bacteria, virus or 
fungus? Or maybe there were such reports, but we 
missed them? Anyway, even without such reports, 
it is obvious for everybody who worked in a 
similar environment that experts an all fields 
talk to each other and exchange important 
information without the need for any publication. 
And yet, the testimonies mentioned above by 
Whoopi Goldberg and journalists like Fredrick 
Kunkle and Liz Bonis are all we have got about 
this mystery virus. On request, Fredrick Kunkle, 
who had authored the two Washington Post articles 
about the Fairfax outbreak, tweeted back (39):

We asked Va. officials in April [2020] and were 
told: “Testing of specimens collected during the 
Greenspring [Fairfax] outbreak in 2019 showed 
several bacteria, including Haemophilus 
influenzae (H. flu). In addition, several 
specimens were positive for rhinovirus, the cause of the common cold.”

I was therefore not the only one to have 
suspicions about this outbreak, but still in 
April 2020, the pathogen responsible for the 
outbreak had not been found, since we would 
expect it to be present in all the samples. 
Within the present context of the present 
COVID-19 epidemic, it is absolutely crucial that 
all these events are investigated.

Other articles brought to light through this 
search are equally interesting. An academic paper 
(40) describes an outbreak in a nursing home in 
Louisiana from November 2017 which matches in all 
points the outbreak in the nursing home in 
Fairfax mentioned above. In the case of 
Louisiana, the cause was found quite easily: it 
was NL63, a coronavirus known for causing “common 
colds”. When coronaviruses, no matter how 
different they might be from each other, cause 
pneumonia outbreaks, the resulting symptoms and 
infection patterns can often be very similar.

----------


One possible trace in the UK

The search also revealed an outbreak in a nursing 
home in Great Britain in January 2019 (41) (42). 
Despite the number of fatalities being the same 
as in the Fairfax nursing home and the origin 
also undetermined, media reporting was limited to 
two articles in a local newspaper which don’t 
really provide many details. Anyway, the puzzle 
of the cause of the outbreak is conveyed very well by the following excerpt:

The Care Quality Commission initially said that 
the causes of death of three residents was 
believed to have been a flu outbreak. They later 
said they could not confirm the cause of death.


----------


Virtually no early traces in Germany and France

Interestingly, similar searches in German and 
French language have revealed no significant 
traces of any possible precursor to SARS-CoV-2. 
In Germany, three celebrities were mentioned as 
having had a pneumonia without indication of the 
name of the pathogen causing it (43) (44) (45), 
but no significant details were given which might 
point to what we are looking for. Like in other 
countries at the beginning of summer, an article 
warned about “atypical pneumonias”, which might 
or might not be an indication that they were more 
frequent that year than expected (46). The search 
in French yielded no article of interest.

----------


Mystery pneumonias in Italy

The contrast cannot be bigger between on one hand 
UK, Germany and France, and on the other hand 
Italy, where mysterious outbreaks of pneumonia in 
2018 and 2019 in northern Italy gave rise to 
numerous reports across the country.

The most important outbreak started in Brescia in 
the fall of 2018 and spread to many other towns 
and villages on the shore of the river Chiesa. It 
was reported in both Italian (47) and 
international media. Many of them mention the 
Legionnaires’ disease as being the cause, but 
without conclusive proof, as the following except (48) shows:

In all, 405 people have been hospitalized with 
pneumonia since the outbreak began earlier this 
month; 42 tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease.

In August 2019, an inquiry by the local attorney 
into this matter concluded that this was not an 
epidemic which could be traced back to a clearly 
defined origin (49) (50) (51). Some of the 
patients had tested positive for the 
Legionnaires’ disease, but most had not. The 
reason why the attorney had investigated was the 
possibility that some cooling towers in the area 
had spread the deadly bacteria. Since this was 
not the case, the attorney stopped investigating. 
No medical investigation took up the task of 
determining the cause of the outbreak.

Another much smaller outbreak occurred in spring 
2019 in Central Italy, mainly among the staff of 
a local hospital. Media reports (52) (53) 
mentioned that the cause was unknown and that the 
search for it was ongoing. A systematic Google 
search found no later report mentioning a 
successful closure of the investigation.

A third outbreak with unknown cause happened in 
winter 2019 in the western region of Liguria, 
with three cases of pneumonia per day seeking 
medical attention in the hospitals San Paolo and 
Santa Corona (!), mostly of unknown cause, in 
addition to the ongoing (but relatively mild) flu wave (54).

The systematic Google search also resulted in a 
series of individual cases of pneumonia, some of 
them celebrities, but without further details 
which hinted at a precursor of SARS-CoV-2.

Since Italy is the country with the most 
intriguing outbreaks of pneumonia in 2018 and 
2019 revealed by this method, the question arose 
whether this could be due to some kind of 
different “media culture”, where events which 
would not have interested the media in other 
countries would give rise to media reports in 
Italy. An additional search was done for 2017 
from April to December. Except for one report 
about a general increase in pneumonias between 
2015 and 2016 in Brescia (55), this additional 
year revealed no additional noticeable article. 
This indicates that the search results above 
point to a significantly higher number of 
pneumonia outbreaks of unknown cause in Italy 
than in the other European countries mentioned above in 2018 and 2019.

----------


Finding SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks on the Internet: Successes and failures

The systematic monthly Google searches used in 
the previous sections are only one possible way 
of looking for SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks on the 
Internet. The results provided above show that 
the method used here can come up with interesting 
clues which would deserve further investigation.

This kind of method, partially computerize and 
made more efficient through AI algorithms, is 
actually used in a systematical way by many 
institutions, among which the WHO and even some 
private companies. The WHO press briefing from 
May 6 (56) provides interesting insights into 
their system called Epidemic Intelligence from 
Open Sources (EIOS). This system triggers up to 
3'000 “signals” per week by relying on automatic 
AI-enhanced text mining from various government, 
media and social media sources (57). The signals 
are then evaluated by experts who might ask 
authorities of the country in question for 
further information and recommend action like 
sending in expert teams. EIOS successfully 
triggered an early alarm for COVID-19 in Wuhan.

One of the earliest programs of this kind was set 
up by the CIA in the early 1970s (58). A more 
recent project, developed after the SARS epidemic 
in Canada and run by a private company, picked up 
one of the very first media reports in Wuhan and 
allowed the company to warn its clients of a 
“pneumonia outbreak of unknown origin” on December 31st (59) (60) (61).

All this sounds like a fantastic success story, 
but it is not, on the contrary. It is the untold 
story of total failure. The New York Times 
reported (62) about academic research estimating 
that by March 1st, 10,000 people were already 
infected with COVID-19 in New York, by the time 
the city announced its first confirmed case. In 
Wuhan, a city twice the size of New York in 
normal times, there were probably a few hundred 
or a few thousand cases in all when they realized 
that they had a problem, even though they did not 
know what it was and first had to find out. In 
New York, in Feburay, they knew that there was a 
virus out there and the genome sequence was 
available online. There was of course the problem 
of the faulty test kits provided by the CDC, but 
for testing at a small scale, test kits are not 
necessary. Every major hospital or laboratory can 
perform a partial genome sequencing on RNA 
fragments. This is much more expensive and takes 
longer than a PCR test with a test kit, but it is 
feasible, especially in a major city with some of 
the best hospitals in the world. With around 
10,000 people infected with COVID-19, many must 
have sought medical attention for pneumonias. 
Even after the first few cases were finally 
diagnosed at the beginning of March, it took more 
than two more weeks before the number of PCR 
tests started to increase significantly (63).

The instructions from the CDC and the federal 
government to test only people who had been in 
contact with China have certainly played a role, 
but they beg another question: How is it that all 
doctors in New York blindly obeyed regulations 
which led to a horrendous public health disaster? 
And even if doctors all turned a blind eye to the 
problem, how is it that among all the high-tech 
AI systems developed to detect health emergencies 
across the world, not one sounded the alarm?

We have to ask the same questions for northern 
Italy. If we look at mortality figures for the 
town of Nembro close to Bergamo which peak around 
March 10 (64), by the last week of February, this 
town had reached an infection rate which would 
put it close to herd immunity (65). That’s the 
moment when doctors in the province of Lodi, at 
the opposite side of Lombardy, found the first 
case of the devastating outbreak in northern 
Italy. Here again, all high-tech alarms failed. 
In parts of Lodi, lockdowns were implemented 
immediately, whereas Bergamo descended into to 
horror of overwhelmed hospitals and war-time-like 
triage, which would of course have been far worse 
if the same infection rate had spread across the 
whole province instead of a small number of towns.

Is it just a coincidence that the two biggest 
failures in terms of early detection happened in 
northern Italy and on the East Coast of the US, 
precisely in the same regions where the 
systematic Google searchers above revealed 
several pneumonia outbreaks which could be early 
traces of precursors of SARS-CoV-2? Such 
“coincidences” do not make it more likely that 
the previous pneumonia outbreak are actually 
related to SARS-CoV-2. But an accumulation of 
pneumonias of unknown origin can lead local 
experts to lower their guard, for example because 
they think: Oh, yes, that’s what we already had 
one year ago. No reason to worry about it.

Maria Rita Gismondo, virologist in charge of the 
bio-emergency laboratory of the Hospital Sacco in 
Milano, Lombardy/Italy, illustrates this 
dangerous mechanism. Her Facebook post on Feb. 
23, after the first cases were diagnosed in the 
province of Lodi and led to local lockdowns and a 
massive testing campaign, immediately got nationwide attention:

To me, this seems madness. You took an infection 
which is hardly more serious than a flu for a 
deadly pandemic! [A me sembra una follia. Si è 
scambiata un’infezione appena più seria di 
un’influenza per una pandemia letale.]

In some media reports, she got support (66) (67), 
in others she was harshly criticized by 
colleagues for downplaying the danger emanating 
from this virus (68) (69). A Twitter search 
showed almost unanimous support for her. Since 
then, she has consistently voiced her opinion 
that the seriousness of the epidemic was greatly 
exaggerated by the media. Her advocacy can 
probably be blamed in part for the fact that 
measures for containing the virus were taken only 
reluctantly, which led to a high number of cases and deaths.

This emphasizes the importance of spotting both 
present and past outbreaks, since past outbreaks 
can have an impact on the handling of new 
outbreaks. It is all the more difficult to 
understand why the highly elaborate search tools 
which we have got at our disposal have so far not 
been used to detect either past or present 
outbreaks. In the past months since the first 
alarms went off regarding Wuhan, there has been 
an obvious unwillingness to look for any relevant 
information about the origin of the virus outside 
of China. Only in very recent times did some 
voices question this otherwise perfect consensus 
among Western media and academia (see below).

----------


Other early traces of SARS-CoV-2

One of the elements which has recently increased 
acceptance for the idea that SARS-CoV-2 might 
have emerged somewhere else than in China is the 
recent research about the presence of the virus 
in waste water. In three countries, namely Spain 
(March 2019) (70), Brazil (November 2019) (71) 
and Italy (December 2019) (72), the virus has 
been found in waste water samples taken before 
the virus was identified in Wuhan.

Another source are early patients found through 
systematic search of medical records or through 
their own testimony. In France, retesting virus 
samples and combing through lung scan images of 
patients hospitalized for pneumonia revealed 
confirmed cases on Dec. 2 and 29 as well as 
suspected cases on Nov. 16 and 17 (73) (74). This 
followed earlier testimonies collected by the 
French magazine Le Politique (75). The same 
magazine then published internal documents from 
the Italian administration showing that some kind 
of “serious flu” often characterized by “severe 
pneumonia” was closely followed by health 
officials from December 4 2019 on (76). This 
corresponds to several media reports about 
Italian health experts mentioning cases of 
“atypical pneumonia” in the fall of 2019 (77) 
(78) (79). However, no systematic investigation 
followed these early leads. In the US, various 
investigations revealed cases on the West Coast 
in November and December 2019 (80) (81) (82) and 
one testimony on the East Coast (83). 
Unfortunately, on the East Coast, where most 
indications of possible precursors were found, no 
systematic investigation was attempted.

Some experts have voiced skepticism regarding 
some of the findings mentioned above (84). 
However, once results are published, they can 
relatively easily be verified. The most important 
seems to be that once a systematic search is 
started, such projects can come up relatively 
fast with concrete results. This has also been 
shown to be the case with the relatively simple 
systematic Google search described above. It is 
all the more difficult to understand why such 
systematic efforts have been undertaken only 
sporadically in a few regions, instead of being 
conducted systematically. Many experts and even 
the WHO have emphasized the urgent need to find 
out more about the origin of this virus. It is 
time that these words are followed by action.

----------


The Huanan Market in Wuhan: origin or superspreader event?

Is it relevant to know how the virus could 
possibly jump from bats to humans, since we know 
that the spillover event happened at the Huanan 
Market in Wuhan? Most of the first COVID-19 cases 
found in China were linked to this market, and 
since it had a section with wild animals, it was 
initially suspected of being the place of the 
original spillover event, i.e. the place where 
the virus jumped from bats or another 
intermediate host to humans (85) (86). However, 
some experts had doubts regarding this theory, 
and on Feb. 22–23, several media from mainland 
China (87) (88) (89) (90), Hong Kong (91) and 
other countries (92) (93) reported that new 
research had revealed that this was not the case, 
that the market had only been a place where 
intense spreading took place, but that the virus 
had circulated among humans well before it arrived there.

Virtually all influential Western media outlets 
ignored this information and some of them, among 
which the BBC (94), The Guardian (95) and 
Business Insider (96), immediately published 
stories reemphasizing that the spillover was 
thought to have taken place at this market. All 
the three articles were published between Feb. 25 
and 26. None of them provided any reason for 
ignoring the Chinese research results. All three 
emphasize the importance of finding the origin of 
the virus and blame capturing wild life (BBC), 
fur farming (The Guardian) and wet markets 
(Business Insider) for the origin of the 
epidemic. Not one of them mentions that wild life 
hunting is widespread for a broad variety of game 
in Western countries or that the EU produces more 
fur in its fur farms than China (97). More 
importantly, not one mentions the extremely 
frequent contact between bats and humans in all 
regions of the globe, even in Western countries. 
Sometime between April 14 and April 17, the 
Business Insider article added the information 
(98) that the Huanan market is no more believed 
to be the place of the SARS-CoV-2 spillover, but 
keeps its headline unchanged, which claim: “Both 
the new coronavirus and SARS outbreaks likely 
started in Chinese ‘wet markets.’” It is 
difficult not to see here a case of the Western 
media reasserting their preferred narrative when 
it is challenged by academic research coming from 
China. This clinging to a China-bashing narrative 
which is attractive to some their readers, but is 
an obstacle to finding important information to 
help us fight against a deadly epidemic, is 
unacceptable and must be investigated.

In the following months, even among Western 
researchers and government officials, there was 
very limited awareness at best that the Huanan 
market was probably not the place where the 
spillover took place. Many voices called for an 
investigation in China about the origin of the 
virus and about the flow of information and 
measures taken in the early weeks of the 
outbreak. In a general article in the New York 
Times about COVID-19 first published on January 
23, even the June 1st update (99) still mentions 
the Huanan market as the place where experts 
believe the spillover to have taken place. 
Meantime, precious time was wasted in the quest 
for reaching a better understanding of the virus.

On April 28, a journalist at the same Guardian 
started to have some doubts about the spillover 
event at the Huanan market (100):

In the public mind, the origin story of 
coronavirus seems well fixed: in late 2019 
someone at the now world-famous Huanan seafood 
market in Wuhan was infected with a virus from an animal. […]

But there is uncertainty about several aspects of 
the Covid-19 origin story that scientists are 
trying hard to unravel, including which species 
passed it to a human. They’re trying hard because 
knowing how a pandemic starts is a key to stopping the next one.

Unfortunately, expecting that the Western media 
realize that they clung to the story of the 
Huanan market origin despite evidence to the 
contrary is asking too much. It required repeated 
statements by WHO officials (101) and the 
publication of new research results both from 
Western (102) and Chinese researchers for the 
Western media to concede (without admitting any 
wrongdoing) that the Huanan market was probably 
only a superspreader event and was unrelated to 
the origin of the epidemic. The most absurd 
reaction is an article in the New Zealand Herald 
(103) claiming that new research contradicts 
“Beijing’s claim” that the virus spillover 
happened at the Huanan market. The article then 
goes on accusing China from preventing research 
into the origin of the virus, when Chinese 
scientists and media tried for months to explain 
that this is not where the spillover happened.

----------


The 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan

If the spillover event from animals to humans did 
not happen in Wuhan, then how and when did the 
virus arrive in the city? There are some 
indications that this happened during the 2019 
Military World Games which took place from Oct. 
18 to Oct. 27 in Wuhan. Athletes from several 
countries were quoted in media reports saying 
that when coming back from these games, they had 
an extraordinarily severe respiratory illness 
whose symptoms were identical with those of 
COVID-19. A first report on a French local TV 
channel at the end of March has since then been 
deleted, probably after pressure from the 
Ministry of Defense (104). It was followed by a 
wave of reports from several countries in the 
first half of May (105) (106) (107) (108) (109). 
Éric Caumes, a French expert in infectious and 
tropical illnesses, claims that the symptoms 
described by the athletes would “make us think” 
that the illness they got was actually COVID-19 (110).

Two attempts were made to test delegation members 
with antibody tests. The first one by RTBF, the 
public Belgian French-speaking broadcasting 
service (111), tested “three members of the 
delegation”, without even specifying if these 
members have fallen ill or at least had some 
symptoms after coming back from Wuhan. It seems 
unlikely that they tested members of the 
delegation who had symptoms, but omitted this 
important information. If indeed the people who 
were tested have had no symptoms, the negative 
test results reported in the article are 
meaningless. This would also invalidate the 
conclusion of the article that these tests make 
the SARS-Cov-2 precursor hypothesis less plausible.

Another article (112) informs us that among 167 
members of the Spanish delegation to the Games, 
138 took an antibody test and 6 of them tested 
positive. Here too, the problem is that we don’t 
get the results separately depending on who 
showed symptoms or fell ill after coming back 
from Wuhan and who had no symptoms at all. 6 out 
of 138 is a rate of 4.3%, which is even lower 
than the average rate of around 5% of positive 
antibody tests among the Spanish population 
(113). In other words, both antibody studies 
conducted on members of delegations to the Games are entirely worthless.

----------


Putting things together: What plausible scenarios 
do we have for the origin of SARS-CoV-2?

A certain number of arguments speak against 
SARS-CoV-2 having jumped from animals to humans 
in Wuhan or in other parts of China. First of 
all, there are simply too many indications of 
earlier presence of this virus or its precursors 
all around the world. Several phylogenetic 
analyses performed on all the virus samples taken 
in China conclude that the most recent common 
ancestor dates back to a date between September 
and December 2019. In China, many virus samples 
were taken very early on, beginning on December 
24 in Wuhan and shortly afterwards in other 
provinces. If an older precursor had circulated 
among humans in Wuhan or in the rest of China, 
from which the sampled viruses could have 
emerged, it is unlikely that these precursors 
could all have disappeared before sampling began. 
In addition, sampling in China was done quite on 
a large scale, in particular at the beginning of 
the outbreak; in December, Wuhan probably had 
only a few hundred or at most a few thousand 
cases. On the other hand, the systematic Google 
searches above and other data like sewage water 
analysis have revealed several possible outbreaks 
in other regions of the globe, but sampling in 
these places started only in February or March, 
with a much higher number of cases.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, some research 
has shown that the earliest samples we have got 
were already better adapted to replicating in 
human bodies than to any other possible host 
animal. The authors of this study claim that this 
proves that the virus was cultivated in a lab 
where it had time to progressively optimize to 
replicate in human cells (12). Obviously, every 
noob will realize that there is another possible 
explanation: this virus was already circulating 
for quite some time among humans, but was not 
spotted before one last mutation allowed it to 
spread fast enough to cause a major outbreak in 
Wuhan which alerted some doctors. This hypothesis 
is supported by several researchers (114) (115). 
The outbreak in Brescia in autumn 2018 caused 
more than 1000 cases of pneumonia and the 
outbreak on the East Coast of the US brought 
enough people into the emergency room for doctors 
of several hospitals to alert each other; 
however, none of the outbreaks mentioned above 
led to a successful search for the responsible pathogen.

Recently, a British researcher claimed that 
SARS-CoV-2 could have remained “dormant” all over 
the world until some environmental conditions 
activated it, leading to an outbreak which 
started in China, but could have started anywhere 
else in the world (116). One of the examples he 
gives, namely the fact that the Spanish flu 
emerged in Western Samoa even though “they hadn’t 
had any communication with the outside world” is 
based on more than shaky evidence; a freighter is 
actually thought to have brought the virus there. 
Anyway, this indicates that the recent 
discoveries of SARS-CoV-2 in waste water before 
the identification of the virus in China, quoted 
by this researcher, have shaken the confidence 
that this virus jumped over to human in China and 
from there spread to the rest of the world.

Another argument against a spillover event in 
China is the fact that the Chinese bats are 
certainly the most thoroughly investigated bats 
in the world. The same is true, to a somewhat 
lesser extent, for the rest of Southeast Asia. 
The closest “relatives” to SARS-CoV-2 which have 
been found there so far in China or all of Asia 
are separated by several decades of separate 
evolution from SARS-CoV-2. This shows that it is 
urgent to spread the scope of the research for 
the origin of this virus beyond China and Asia in general.

If we put all of this together, it seems more and 
more likely that this virus circulated among 
humans for quite some time. This hypothesis was 
actually defended by some researchers as far back 
as March 2020 (115), but was rejected or ignored 
by the rest of the Western academic community and 
the Western media. As a result of all these 
considerations, we get a huge variety of possible 
scenarios. There might have been only one or many 
thousands of different spillover events; in the 
latter case, most outbreaks would have fizzled 
out because the virus was not well adapted to the 
new human host. In one case, an unknown number of 
mutations somewhere in the world would have 
allowed it to spread further. The Military World 
Games in Wuhan probably played the role of a 
superspreader event. If we consider the kind of 
interactions which happen among athletes and 
between athletes and locals, it is more likely 
that the virus was brought to the games by one of 
the more than 100 delegations coming from all 
over the world. The virus spread to other 
delegations and also to some locals from Wuhan 
where it spread unnoticed for some time within 
this city. Two more mutations which are well 
documented allowed it to spread faster, leading 
to a first local superspreader event at the 
Huanan Market. There are indications that the 
virus strain responsible for this outbreak was 
still relatively slow in spreading; closing the 
market on Jan. 1st and some first measures led to 
a temporary decline in new cases. This 
strengthened the initial hypothesis that the 
spillover event had taken place a short time ago 
and that the virus was not yet adapted well to 
humans, giving rise to hopes that the outbreak 
would fizzle out by itself. Another mutation then 
seems to have given it a new boost, leading to 
the lockdown of Wuhan on January 23 and 
subsequently of other Chinese regions. After 
these mutations, the virus was ready to spread 
all over the world, after a further increase in 
replication and spreading speed through 
additional mutations which happened in Europe. 
Some of the claims made here are the result of 
own data analyses which will be published shortly.

Hopefully, this article can make a convincing 
case for more thorough research into the possible 
origin of SARS-CoV-2, including through existing 
tools which were so far neglected like 
Internet-based outbreak warning tools and media 
analysis. We must also ask ourselves why these 
tools worked so well in detecting the outbreak in 
Wuhan, but failed in detecting bigger outbreaks 
in Europe and the US, even though these events 
would have been easier to detect since the threat 
and the target virus was already known. Last but 
not least, we must investigate the reasons why 
crucial information coming from reliable sources 
was systematically ignored for months by most of 
the Western media and academia. These problems in 
information transmission not only handicapped our 
search for the origin of the virus and for a 
better understanding of the virus. These problems 
also triggered a massive wave of anti-Chinese and 
anti-Asian hatred and a huge increase in attacks 
motivated by racism. In the midst of a deadly 
epidemic, all forces must be focused on saving 
lives, and those who don’t understand this must be held accountable.

----------


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Written by

<https://medium.com/@OttoKolbl?source=follow_footer--------------------------follow_footer->Otto 
Kolbl


Researcher/PhD student at University of Lausanne 
on health issues (now COVID-19), related media 
reporting; member of German Interior Min. COVID-19 task force.