The groundbreaking research by US experts, which analysed samples from thousands of coronavirus patients, also established that the outbreak almost certainly began in October 2019.
Their findings challenge Beijing’s attempts to divert attention to other nations as the pandemic’s birthplace, with officials arguing that the virus may have been imported into Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.
The study’s suggested date of first infections fits with claims from the US State Department that ‘several’ researchers at the top-security Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick in the autumn of 2019.
Inspectors from the World Health Organisation gathered outside an exhibition on Covid-19 in Wuhan yesterday
The explosive findings come as a World Health Organisation team belatedly begins its inquiry in China into the origins of the pandemic amid fears that its work will be stifled by the Chinese dictatorship.
China has promoted dubious theories that the virus emerged outside its borders. Even last week, a foreign ministry spokeswoman claimed it might have come from a US military base and laboratory in Maryland.
Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan scientist whose cutting-edge research has aroused suspicions, has also just published a paper arguing the disease ‘existed for some time before the first cases were described in Wuhan’.
China’s stance has provoked dismay around the world. ‘The evidence of the virus emerging from Wuhan is compelling but Beijing continues to blame others,’ said Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The new US study is by a team of molecular epidemiology detectives at the Institute for Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine, Temple University, Philadelphia. They used modelling techniques developed in tracking cancer mutations to trace the evolution of Sars-Cov-2 – the coronavirus strain that causes Covid-19 – back to the ‘progenitor’, or ancestor, genome behind the 101 million infections worldwide.
Their study dates the progenitor from mid-October to early November 2019. It says there are ‘multiple coronavirus infections’ showing its ‘fingerprint’ from January 2020, indicating it ‘was spreading worldwide weeks after the first reported cases of Covid-19’.
‘All the genetic evidence makes it clear this virus is from China,’ said Sergei Pond, one of the paper’s authors. ‘The pattern of worldwide spread is also consistent with Chinese viruses seeding epidemics in other countries.’
He said it was hard to tie down a precise date for ‘Patient Zero’, but believed the ancestor genome probably emerged in late October 2019.The researchers’ findings are backed by another study from scientists in California and Arizona that concluded the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019 was ‘the plausible interval when the first case of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Hubei province’. China first admitted to a new epidemic on December 31, then took three weeks to confirm human transmission despite plentiful earlier evidence that it was spreading fast among citizens and medical teams in the central Chinese city.
Days later, Wuhan scientists published a paper that spoke of 41 identified cases by January 2, 2020. A well-sourced story in the South China Morning Post later said the first confirmed case – a man aged 55 – dated back to November 17. Now, the WHO has revealed it knows of 124 confirmed cases before the end of 2019 – all except five of them involving patients from Wuhan. Critics complain it has sat on this key information.
‘If it is serious about investigating Covid-19 origins, it should release case histories and ensure any virus sequences from hospital samples are made available,’ said Gilles Demaneuf, a member of ‘Drastic’, a team of researchers probing the origins. The quest to find out about the pandemic’s origins is complicated by Communist Party officials who silenced doctors and scientists, deleted databases, falsely blamed an animal market and even claimed the disease came from outer space.
Many experts believe Covid crossed over naturally from bats to humans, possibly through another species, but there is a growing clamour to investigate if it could have leaked from one of the laboratories in Wuhan working with bats.
Much attention has focused on WIV, China’s top-security lab that specialised in bat coronaviruses, where Prof Shi was artificially forcing the evolution of viruses.
Before leaving office, President Trump’s team disputed her claims there were ‘zero infections’ at the lab. Earlier this month, Prof Shi published a paper that focused on outbreaks of the virus on Western mink farms and claimed contact with contaminated food from cold storage ‘could be an important source’ of Covid transmission.
Leading scientists dismiss such ideas. Nikolai Petrovsky, professor of medicine at Flinders University, Adelaide, said Australia was importing huge quantities of frozen food yet avoided outbreaks apart from ones caused by quarantine breaches. ‘There is no evidence this virus originated in minks,’ he added.
Prof Shi admits she first thought on hearing of the outbreak in Wuhan was that it may have been a leak from her lab but has since denied this.