Wuhan’s seafood market may have been the origin of the covid-19 pandemic after all

The Huanan meat and seafood market in Wuhan
The Huanan meat and seafood market in Wuhan
Image: Aly Song / Reuters
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When and where the covid-19 pandemic began seems to hinge on when a 41-year-old accountant got sick.

The World Health Organization (WHO) thought it was Dec. 8, 2019, making him the first-known covid-19 patient, according to the WHO’s March 2021 report into the origins of the pandemic. Since the accountant hadn’t visited the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan—where the coronavirus was presumed to have first spread—theories of covid-19’s origins underwent a revision. And since the accountant lived closer to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the WHO report fed the “lab leak” theory: that the coronavirus had slipped into the world from a lab at the Institute.

Among the scientists who believed that the lab leak theory ought to be investigated was Michael Worobey, a virologist at the University of Arizona. On Nov. 18, however, Worobey took a different stance. Having studied the patterns of early cases as well as medical records, Worobey concluded that the accountant first showed symptoms not on Dec. 8 but on Dec. 16, 2019. As a result, Worobey argued in a paper published in Science, the most likely “patient zero” was a woman who sold seafood at the Huanan market, whose symptoms appeared on Dec. 11.

On Twitter, Worobey warned that his article didn’t cover every possible detail. But by bringing the Wuhan market back into the reckoning, Worobey’s paper offers ideas for scientists looking to figure out how the virus jumped the species barrier into human beings. And it offers a counter to those who still believe that the virus was loosed into the world from a Chinese lab.

Who was covid-19’s patient zero?

To determine the date of the accountant’s illness, Worobey relied in part on a video report from The Paper, a Shanghai-based publication funded in part by the Chinese government. In the video, shot in March 2020, the accountant said his covid-19 symptoms began on Dec. 16, 2019. He had been ill on Dec. 8 as well, he said, but that trip to the hospital had to do with a visit to the dentist, to treat “baby teeth retained into adulthood,” Worobey wrote. Closer to his covid-19 infection, the accountant added, he had traveled closer to the Huanan market; by then, several cases had emerged at the market already.

The WHO report doesn’t seem to take this timeline into account; it regards the date of the accountant’s sickness as Dec. 8, 2019. Speaking to the New York Times, Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, said the report’s conclusion about that date was a mistake.

Focusing again on the Huanan market

If the accountant is ruled out, the second confirmed case identified by the WHO becomes the first: the seafood vendor in the Huanan market. That fits the preponderance of cases that emerged in and around the market, Worobey argues. It wasn’t “just” a super-spreading site, he said; there were other places in Wuhan, such as restaurants or hospitals or shopping malls, that would have been more likely super-spreading sites. Instead, the market was the likely origin of the disease’s spread itself, Worobey believes.

Worobey’s paper isn’t, by any means, the final word. David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist, told the Washington Post that Worobey had based his paper “on fragmentary information and to a large degree hearsay.” Worobey responded on Twitter, saying that scientists should refrain from “dismissing the voices of the frontline workers and COVID patients in Wuhan as dishonest or hopelessly unreliable in recounting their own experiences.”