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Small steps to Covid-19 origins

October 17, 2022

Two papers were recently published on the origin of Covid-19. The more significant is a genomic analysis of early cases in Wuhan. It shows that two viral lineages were introduced quite close in time, likely November 2019. The analysis also shows limited cryptic spread prior to that. In Wuhan.

The second is a geographic analysis of early cases, showing the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as an epicenter of early cases, and examining what animals in the market might have been vectors.

Those results are not surprising, given what was already known. They don’t much push the story back. Ultimately, we won’t know the origin of this virus until we discover its precursor, or such a close relative that we know the precursor’s path. There is no guarantee we ever will find that. Too many people look at problems in science as if they were human-invented games or puzzles, where the answer must emerge if only one puts the pieces together in the right fashion. In reality, much of what limits science is the difficulty of finding what data is relevant to a particular research question.

The temptation to treat the search for a disease’s origin like a mystery novel gives rise to blinkered and simplistic thinking. In this case, that the virus either was leaked from nefarious work done in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or came from an animal sold in the market. Either Colonel Mustard in the library or Professor Plum in the kitchen. The world is large, and it is easy to think of alternate scenarios. The virus might have been introduced to Wuhan not by animals, but by workers who both visit the market and deal with animals elsewhere, the latter of which were the source of the zoonotic leap. While the studies above narrow the possibilities, we still are dealing with viruses and a vast biological world.

There inevitably will be surveys to meet the desire for what the best answer is to date. Actual understanding won’t advance much without research that uncovers relevant data. Those who have little familiarity with science will find it easy to credit politics for the paucity of that data. Those familiar with research know that relevant data does not appear at one’s beck and call. Or even because many scientists diligently search. MERS-CoV emerged seven years before Covid-19, and we still don’t know its origin.

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