The curious case of the COVID-19 origin

The curious case of the COVID-19 origin
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Now that unmasking time is here, perhaps it’s time to explore the origin of COVID-19. The virus has killed almost 3.5 million people worldwide, and we all would like to have some answers. 

As Winston Churchill said of Russia, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma," meriting an investigation by Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. 

Investigation of the case began in China, where the first cases involving humans emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan City, the sprawling capital of Hubei province in the central part of the country. Unfortunately, the investigation began there, and ended there. Or maybe not. 


A large proportion of the initial cases apparently had a direct link to the Hunan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, but that was hardly conclusive. True, the virus could have been introduced to the human population from an animal source in the market; but equally plausible, a human being infected elsewhere could have propagated the virus among the crowd of patrons. 

In February 2020, a team of international scientists commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) visited Wuhan to determine the origin of the virus. The problem is that the investigation was a non-investigation. The investigators had 28 days in China of which 14 days were spent in quarantine. Their hasty conclusion was that the virus took a tortuous route. It started with a bat, and the bat either passed it onto another animal or to humans. But humans don’t regularly fraternize with bats, and most of the animals they come in contact with do not frequent bat caves. A WHO report issued last week concluded that more study is necessary.

The WHO also looked into the possibility of a laboratory accident. The team briefly visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in an effort to test the theory that the pandemic originated with a lab leak. Much research has been conducted at the Wuhan lab in recent years on, guess what, bat coronaviruses. Chinese scientists have said that the virus was never present in any China labs — the defense of alibi. But they could be lying. 

The WHO issued a report in April that took the mainstream line that the virus had originated with a bat, which passed it on to an animal, which in turn passed it on to humans. It assessed the probability of this zoonotic source of COVID-19 as “likely to very likely,” and the probability of a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” The WHO report, which had the advance approval of the China government, was a slam dunk for the Chinese. It permitted speculation that the virus might even have originated in another country in southeast Asia or perhaps in Europe.

Dr. David A. Relman, a Stanford scientist, said that the “WHO investigation appears to be biased, skewed and insufficient.” The WHO chief, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noting calls in the scientific community for a more thorough investigation, said that, although the possibility of lab leak was “the least likely hypothesis,” the WHO investigation was not “extensive enough.” Groups of scientists have called for further action and a more comprehensive investigation. They claim that “critical records…remain inaccessible.” Could it be that China suffers from a lack of transparency?


Conspiracy theories abound about the origin of the virus. In her excellent new book entitled “Virus,” Nina Burleigh tells of a retired government scientist she met in the Midwest who claimed that “dark human forces” were behind the pandemic. Big name elites had concluded that the world’s population had to decrease by about 80 percent. We had to get down to a sustainable number of human beings or the earth would fry like Venus. Thankfully, no one has asked the WHO to investigate this possibility.

Pandemics tend to take on xenophobic finger-pointing. President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE, who initially praised China’s response to the virus, later called it the “China virus,” and blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, it was China on Jan. 10, 2020 that posted on, an online site for data that might assist in public health activities and research, the announcement that it had isolated and fully sequenced the virus. Without this information, no vaccine would have been possible.

The Spanish flu of 1917 did not originate in Spain. The Journal of Transnational Medicine reported in 2004 that the most likely site of origin was Kansas. As historian John M. Barry sagely said: “When you mix politics and science, you get politics. “

James D. Zirin is an author, talk show host and former federal prosecutor.