Forthcoming World Health Organization report is expected to confirm Chinese investigators’ suspicions
BEIJING, BOSTON, WUHAN––Will a World Health Organization report expected to be released within days indict the Chinese mink industry for infecting the world with COVID-19?
Beijing University researchers have already suspected for more than a year that mink farming was likely the missing link between wild horseshoe bats in southern Yunnan province and the COVID-19 outbreak that hit Wuhan, 300 miles to the northeast, in late November 2019.
“Infectivity pattern analysis illustrates that bat and mink may be two candidate reservoirs” for COVID-19, the eight-member Beijing University team suggested.
Their paper, entitled “Host and infectivity prediction of Wuhan 2019 novel coronavirus using deep learning algorithm,” was posted to the university web site on January 25, 2020.
Now a forthcoming report from a World Health Organization team of medical investigators is expected to confirm the Beijing University researchers’ suspicions––but how directly?
African swine fever linked to COVID-19 outbreak
A strong set of clues appears to be revealed in the yet-to-be-peer-reviewed preprint edition of a paper entitled “How one pandemic led to another: African swine flu virus, the disruption contributing to SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] emergence in Wuhan.”
This paper was produced by a four-member team including Chinese epidemiologists W. Xia and X. Jiang, along with British colleagues J. Hughes and D. Robertson.
Concludes their abstract, “Pork prices were particularly high” during the fourth quarter of 2019 in six southern Chinese provinces known for wildlife consumption and wildlife farming.
Among those provinces were Hubei, whose capital city is Wuhan, and Shandong, “which experienced the biggest losses in pork production” due to the African swine flu pandemic, and “is also the largest mink farming province.”
Species susceptible to COVID-19 sold for meat
“Civets, mink, bamboo rats, deer are the most popular wildlife widely farmed in China,” the abstract continues.
Civets, mink, and deer are all known now to be susceptible to COVID-19; mink are now known to both catch the coronavirus from humans and to pass it back, as opportunity permits.
“In 2019, 11.7 million mink fur skins were derived in China,” the abstract says. “The meat of these animals could conveniently act as one of the sources for alternative meat in a culture which has a particular appetite for wildlife meat.”
Alleges the abstract, “Civets (identified as the direct animal source transmitting SARS CoV-1 to humans in 2003), as well as mink , were among dozens of species offered by one of the merchants at the [Huanan Seafood Wholesales Market] in Wuhan.”
The Huanan Seafood Wholesales Market was identified in late December 2019 as the location from which COVID-19 spread first throughout Wuhan, and was closed on December 31, 2019.
From Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people, COVID-19 rapidly spread throughout the world, despite aggressive attempts at containment begun in early January 2020.
Mink meat mislabeled
“The open trade in minks, identified as such, for meat consumption is accompanied in China by an illicit type of trade in which the mink is mislabeled,” the four co-authors charge. “This is the kind of activity that may have increased with African swine fever. As a byproduct or waste product of fur farms, it can be sold cheaply to traders,” who may pretend to purchase the remains for rendering into fertilizer, but then “upsell it to food producers, presumably with false labeling.”
Said a Chinese financial media report dated 26 Feb 2020, translated by Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] rapporteur Dan Silver and posted by ProMED on March 15, 2021, “Investigations by China’s National Committee for Biodiversity Conservation and other organizations have found that criminals are taking the meat of mink, foxes and raccoon dogs whose pelts have been removed, and passing them off as other meat products.
“At the Huanan Seafood Market, suspected as having been the source of novel coronavirus, the meat of fox and mink or live mink has been found on the menu of the wildlife restaurant.”
Since the carcasses of animals pelted on fur farms “are not inspected for disease, they can easily cause food safety problems,” the report continued.
Observed ProMED infectious disease moderator Arnon Shimshony, “China’s [COVID-19] surveillance results on mink and other farmed wildlife are yet to become available.”
Chinese abruptly reversed policy on wildlife farming
A further hint as to what the World Health Organization investigative team will disclose came on March 15, 2021 from Michaeleen Doucleff of WBUR News, a National Public Radio affiliate in Boston, Massachusetts.
EcoHealth Alliance disease ecologist Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization delegation who visited China to compile the forthcoming WHO report, told Doucleff that “the WHO team found new evidence that wildlife farms [in southern China near the Yunnan cave habitat of infected bats] were supplying vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan with animals,” Doucleff said.
“China promoted the farming of wildlife as a way to alleviate rural populations out of poverty,” explained Daszak. “It was very successful. In 2016, they had 14 million people employed in wildlife farms, and it was a $70 billion industry,” in U.S. dollars.
“Then,” wrote Doucleff , “on February 24, 2020, right when the outbreak in Wuhan was winding down, the Chinese government made a complete about-face about the farms.”
Bat proximity to wildlife farming
Suggested Daszak, “What China did then was very important. They put out a declaration saying that they were going to stop the farming of wildlife for food. They sent out instructions to the farmers about how to safely dispose of the animals –– to bury, kill, or burn them –– in a way that didn’t spread disease.”
Continued Doucleff, “Daszak thinks, these farms could be the spot of spillover, where the coronavirus jumped from a bat into another animal and then into people.
Affirmed Daszak, “I do think that SARS-CoV-2 1st [COVID-19] got into people in South China. It’s looking that way.”
“First,” explained Doucleff, “many [wildlife] farms are located in or around a southern province, Yunnan, where virologists found a bat virus that’s genetically 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
Civets & pangolins
“Second, the farms breed animals that are known to carry coronaviruses, such as civet cats and pangolins.
“Finally, during the World Health Organization’s mission to China, Daszak said the team found new evidence that these farms were supplying vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.”
Confirmed a second member of the World Health Organization investigative team, virologist Linfa Wang of the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, who also spoke to Doucleff, “There was massive transmission going on at that market for sure.”
Chinese investigators, Wang told Doucleff, found that “In the live animal section, they had many positive samples. They even had two samples from which they could isolate live virus.”
Concluded Doucleff, “Daszak and others on the WHO team believe that the wildlife farms provided a perfect conduit between a coronavirus-infected bat in Yunnan (or neighboring Myanmar) and a Wuhan animal market.”
Finished Daszak, “China closes that pathway down for a reason. The reason was, back in February 2020, they believed this was the most likely pathway [for the coronavirus to spread to Wuhan]. And when the WHO report comes out, we believe it’s the most likely pathway too.”
But exactly which animal species, from which farm, remains to be discovered.