Was it a bat? A lab leak? A bioweapon? Virus hunters battle cornovarius origin speculation

screenshot appetite for warm meat drives risk of disease in hong kong and china
Wet market in China. Credit: Grant Rooney/Alamy

A vacuum of knowledge about the origins of the new coronavirus ravaging the world has provided fertile ground for all manner of theories — from the fantastic, to the dubious to the believable.

It was a bioweapon manufactured by the Chinese. The US Army brought the virus to Wuhan. It leaked — like a genie out of a bottle — from a lab in an accident. It took root at a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Scientists have banded together across international borders to condemn the nationalist-tinged conspiracy theories. And yet, they are divided on what was once widely thought the most likely culprit: a so-called wet market in Wuhan, where wild animals are kept in cages and sold as pets or food. It is believed that a bat-infected animal — perhaps a pangolin — infected the first human.

Related article:  We're better at fighting epidemics because of advances in genetic sequencing, synthetic biology and a willingness to collaborate

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In any case, researchers agree that the coronavirus jumped from an animal to a human, a phenomenon known as “zoonotic spillover.”

“We’re very confident that the origin of Covid-19 is in bats,” said Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a health nonprofit that tracks zoonotic spillover. “We just don’t know where exactly it originated — which bat species exactly. And we don’t know how many others there are out there that could emerge in the future.”

It is a genetic detective story.

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