My Comments: My readers have long known of my lack of respect for Donald Trump. Some ten days ago, he and Mike Pompeo began a coordinated effort to shift the blame for our slow response to the Covid19 pandemic. The idea was to allege there was voluminous evidence it originated in a lab in Wuhan.
Epidemiologists and intelligence sources said this was nonsense and since no one in the administration was willing or able to provide supporting evidence, the claim was largely derided by most people here and across the world. If there’s a pattern of telling falsehoods, why is this claim any different.
This article strikes me as credible and helpful in understanding what we’re facing, regardless of who’s to blame.
by Thomas K. Grose \ May 13 2020 \ https://tinyurl.com/yaab8cyc
LONDON – There’s no doubt that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the highly contagious disease that’s so far infected more than 4.2 million people globally and killed nearly 290,000, originated in China.
But while early analyses of the outbreak indicated that it first emerged in humans in the city of Wuhan — which became the epicenter of China’s epidemic — possibly at a seafood market, that scenario hasn’t been fully confirmed by researchers.
Now a University of Cambridge geneticist says there is strong circumstantial evidence that the virus didn’t originate in Wuhan after all.
“This idea that the Wuhan seafood market is the origin is actually not clear-cut,” says Peter Forster, a fellow in archaeological research at Cambridge.
If Forster’s research holds up, it would also put to rest a dubious claim made by U.S. President Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, that the pathogen leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a government lab. Neither Trump nor Pompeo has offered evidence to back up that assertion, and the intelligence agencies of America’s closest allies have debunked it.
Forster is a co-inventor of phylogenetic algorithms that have, since the 1990s, become the standard software for mining genetic data to reconstruct human evolutionary trees, or networks. His team applied the software to 44 genome samples of the coronavirus gleaned from the earliest official reported cases in China from Dec. 24 of last year to Jan. 17.
In a recent paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Forster reported he found three main strains of the virus that he labeled A, B and C.
His research determined that A was the founding variant because it was the version most similar to the type of SARS-Cov-2 (the scientific name for the virus) discovered in bats. Many experts suspect that the virus migrated to humans from bats, probably via some other animal. But he also discovered that the A strain wasn’t the predominant type in Wuhan.
Of 23 samples that came from Wuhan, only three were type A, the rest were type B, a version two mutations from A. But in other parts of China, Forster says, initially A was the predominant strain. For instance, of nine genome samples in Guangdong, some 600 miles south of Wuhan, five were A types.
“I would be a bit careful about pinpointing a place (of origin), because we don’t have many samples from the early phase,” he says. “But it seems to me we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to Wuhan when looking for the origin.”
Asked if his ongoing research should quash speculation that the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab, Forster is circumspect. “It’s not black and white. All I can say is it doesn’t look to me as if Wuhan is the prime candidate, because A exists in other regions of China at that time at possibly a higher frequency.”
The B type has since become the predominant version. The A type has largely petered out, as has the third variant, C, which mainly took hold in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and in scattered areas around Europe.
Forster’s research also indicates that COVID-19 may have been circulating among humans and animals before the reported first case in China on Dec. 1. The mutation rate he used indicates that there is a 95% chance that the original successful spread of the virus may have commenced as far back as Sept. 13, 2019.
However, he adds, that assumes “that the mutation rate is constant and that I can simply use it as a clock to go back in time.” Since then, however, he’s now analyzed 1,001 virus genomes, and has determined that while the mutation rate in East Asia is around 1.5 per month, outside that region it’s closer to 2 or 2.1 per month.
“It’s clear that the virus can change its mutation rate,” Forster explains. “And if that has happened now, it might also have happened in the past, and in that case we can’t be sure whether my estimate is accurate. But I would say it’s the best we can do at the moment.”
The B type’s rapid mutation rate also doesn’t look like neutral evolution, he says, and it may be affected by some form of natural selection in response to environmental influences. “The virus seems to have accelerated outside East Asia, and this is in keeping with the odd appearance of the B type.”
That finding also seems to be in line with research last week out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory that found that the current dominant strain of the coronavirus appears to be more contagious than other strains.
Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University, is working with Chinese researchers to investigate hospital samples in China to see if there is more evidence that the outbreak occurred elsewhere in China before it was picked up in Wuhan. “He is conducting the kind of work my research is pointing at,” Forster says.
Determining the exact origins of a lethal virus is an important step in trying to stop future outbreaks of similar pathogens, which is why Lipkin and virologists — some guided by roadmaps like Forster’s genetic family trees — are making a concerted effort to pinpoint COVID-19’s origins. And chances are good that they’ll eventually solve the mystery.