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
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
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
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
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.
An early possible trace of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: Virginia/USA,
July 2019For 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,
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:
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
USA 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
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
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):
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- We asked Va. officials in April  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.”
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 UKThe 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
FranceInterestingly, 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 ItalyThe 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 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.
- In all, 405 people have been hospitalized with pneumonia since the
outbreak began earlier this month; 42 tested positive for Legionnaires’
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
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
failuresThe 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
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)
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
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:
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.
- 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
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-2One 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
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
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):
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.
- 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.
The 2019 Military World Games in WuhanIf 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
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
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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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.