Has COVID-induced bat-shit craziness run its course?
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.––More than three years after COVID-19 hit the U.S., killing nearly 1.2 million Americans and 6.9 million people worldwide, animal disease research appears to be at last returning to a focus on science, away from the highly politicized hunt for someone to blame.
The vector through which COVID-19 evolved to attack humans will probably never be established to everyone’s satisfaction, but the preponderance of evidence now suggests that it passed from horseshoe bats in a remote cave in Yunnan, China to wild raccoon dogs, also known as tanuki; infected raccoon dogs raised for meat and far; and spread to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, exactly as many investigators suspected all along.
Conspiracy theories run out of gas, if not hot air
Contrary to the conspiracy theory most popular in the U.S., COVID-19 was not manufactured in a Chinese laboratory, with or without the help of the New York City-based EcoHealth Alliance.
Also contrary to the conspiracy theory most popular in China, COVID-19 did not infect the nation via imported frozen fish, killing at least 5,272 Chinese people despite the almost immediate imposition of some of the strictest quarantines ever as soon as COVID-19 was identified as a new disease.
EcoHealth Alliance is again funded
Perhaps the surest sign of the depoliticization of zoonotic disease research is that as Jocelyn Kaiser reported for Science on May 10, 2023, “Three years after then-President Donald Trump pressured the National Institutes of Health to suspend a research grant to a U.S. group studying bat coronaviruses with partners in China, the agency has restarted the award.
“The new 4-year grant,” Kaiser explained, “is a stripped-down version of the original grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization, providing $576,000 per year.
“That 2014 award,” Kaiser wrote, “included funding for controversial experiments that mixed parts of different bat viruses related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the coronavirus that sparked a global outbreak in 2002–04, and included a sub award to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“The new award omits those studies,” Kaiser noted, “and also imposes extensive new accounting rules on EcoHealth, which drew criticism from government auditors for its bookkeeping practices.
Renewed in 2019, the National Institutes of Health grant to the EcoHealth Alliance was suspended in April 2020 after Trump, under intense criticism for initially denying the seriousness of COVID-19 and then for an ineffective response to it, amplified what Kaiser summarized as “unsupported allegations that a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology started the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The project later drew concerns for experiments, conducted in virologist Shi Zhengli’s lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Kaiser acknowledged, “in which researchers attached the spike protein of various wild bat coronaviruses to a different virus ‘backbone’ in order to gauge the wild pathogens’ potential to infect human airway cells. Such experiments allow scientists to isolate the role of the spike protein and study coronaviruses that they can’t culture easily.”
Concluded Kaiser, “The project no longer involves collecting new bat samples or working with live viruses. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has no role beyond contributing more than 300 whole and partial genome sequences of SARS-related bat coronaviruses from its collection.”
“Outbreak was about the wildlife trade”
William B. Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance, is also president of the World Animal Health Organization working group on wildlife diseases and chairs the International Union for the Conservation of Nature wildlife health specialist group.
His favorite distinction, however, as his official biography reminds, is having “coined the term One Health in 2003 to describe the interdependence of healthy ecosystems, animals and people.”
Ruminating on January 31, 2023 about pandemic prevention, Karesh observed that, “The 2003 SARS outbreak was about the wildlife trade, which includes both the legal and illegal trade of wild animals or parts and products derived from them. SARS likely spread from bats to other animals, then to humans.
China lost more from COVID-19 than was made from wildlife trade in 10 years
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not been proven to be linked to the trade and sale of wildlife,” Karesh said, about two months before new information confirmed the raccoon dog connection, “but the virus appears to have originated from similar viruses found in bats.
“The wildlife trade generates a lot of money,” Karesh observed, “so people are reluctant to push back or attempt to control it. China’s wildlife trade is valued at about $74 billion per year.
“In the grand scheme,” Karesh assessed, “they’ve lost way more from this one outbreak than they’ve made from the wildlife trade over the past ten years combined.”
“Schools should teach why diseases emerge”
Unfortunately, noted Karesh, “Countries will crack down and say, ‘No wildlife trade,’ but then over the years the concern will wane. This is what happened with the SARS outbreak. Governments are not serious about getting the illegal wildlife trade under control—which would reduce the number of these outbreaks and pandemics significantly
“School systems should teach people about why diseases emerge,” Karesh said, an unlikely prospect in view that even teaching about evolution is politically risky in the U.S. due to fundamentalist Christian opposition, and potentially more dangerous than that in parts of the Muslim world, where evolutionary theory is condemned as “contrary to Islam.”
The weight of evidence tipped decisively toward raccoon dogs as the missing link between wild horseshoe bats and humans after a French team “identified previously undisclosed genetic data from [the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market] in Wuhan, China, that she and colleagues say support the theory that coronavirus-infected animals there triggered the COVID-19 pandemic,” reported Jon Cohen for Science on March 16, 2023.
“Findings weaken the view of vocal minority”
The French findings were accepted by the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, an expert panel convened in 2022 by the World Health Organization.
Assessed Cohen, “The findings weaken the view of a vocal minority that a virology lab in Wuhan was the likely origin of SARS-CoV-2.”
French national research agency evolutionary biology Florence Débarre “unearthed the data, which consist of genetic sequences posted in GISAID, a virology database, by Chinese researchers,” Cohen detailed.
“The Chinese team had collected environmental samples from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was connected to a cluster of early COVID-19 cases and despite its name also sold a variety of mammals for food,” Cohen explained further.
China hid evidence
“Since Débarre spotted the sequences,” Cohen said, “GISAID has removed them, noting that this was at the request of the submitter,” quite likely because the French analysis of the data tends to refute the Chinese government effort to point away from any source of COVID-19 that would implicate official negligence in response to wildlife trafficking for human consumption
Beijing University researchers have suspected since soon after COVID-19 emerged that mink farming, often done alongside raccoon dog farming, might have been involved in transmitting the disease to humans.
“Infectivity pattern analysis illustrates that bat and mink may be two candidate reservoirs” for COVID-19, an 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.
“Pork prices were particularly high”
A second paper, produced by a four-member team including Chinese epidemiologists W. Xia and X. Jiang, along with British colleagues J. Hughes and D. Robertson, outlined how the transmission might have happened.
“Pork prices were particularly high,” the team wrote, 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.”
Mink for meat
“In 2019, 11.7 million mink fur skins were derived in China,” the team reported. “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.”
“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 charged. “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.
Since the carcasses of animals pelted on fur farms “are not inspected for disease, they can easily cause food safety problems,” the report continued.
Now the role of raccoon dogs in transmitting SARS appears to be established. The question remains whether China has the political will to stop the traffic.