Where did COVID-19 start? Was there a lab leak in Wuhan in China, where deadly pathogens are studied? Did it originate in an animal market in Wuhan, then jump from animals to humans? Was there a different cause?

NPR explores the debate here.

Federal agencies do not agree. Scientists do not agree.

The story begins:

Since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began three years ago, its origin has been a topic of much scientific — and political — debate. Two main theories exist: The virus spilled over from an animal into people, most likely in a market in Wuhan, China, or the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and spread due to some type of laboratory accident.

The Wall Street Journal added to that debate this week when they reported that the U.S. Department of Energy has shifted its stance on the origin of COVID. It now concludes, with “low confidence,” that the pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China.

The agency based their conclusion on classified evidence that isn’t available to the public. According to the federal government, “low confidence” means “the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information.”

And at this point, the U.S. intelligence community still has no consensus about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Four of the eight intelligence agencies lean toward a natural origin for the virus, with “low confidence,” while two of them – the DOE and the Federal Bureau of Information – support a lab origin, with the latter having “moderate confidence” about their conclusion.

But at the end of the day, the origin of the pandemic is also a scientific question. Virologists, who study pandemic origins, are much less divided than the U.S. intelligence community. They say there is “very convincing” data and “overwhelming evidence” pointing to an animal origin.

In particular, scientists published two extensive, peer-reviewed papers in Science in July 2022, offering the strongest evidence to date that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in animals at a market in Wuhan, China. Specifically, they conclude that the coronavirus most likely jumped from a caged wild animal into people at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where a huge COVID-19 outbreak began in December 2019.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen, who contributed to one of the Science papers, says the DOE’s “low confident” conclusion doesn’t “negate the affirmative evidence for zoonotic [or animal] origin nor do they add any new information in support of lab origin.”

“Many other [news] outlets are presenting this as new conclusive proof that the lab origin hypothesis is equally as plausible as the zoonotic origin hypothesis,” Rasmussen wrote in an email to NPR, “and that is a misrepresentation of the evidence for either.”

So just what is the scientific evidence that the pandemic began at the seafood market?

Neither of the Science papers provide the smoking gun — that is, an animal infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus at a market.

But they come close. They provide photographic evidence of wild animals such as raccoon dogs and a red fox, which can be infected with and shed SARS-CoV-2, sitting in cages in the market in late 2019. What’s more, the caged animals are shown in or near a stall where scientists found SARS-CoV-2 virus on a number of surfaces, including on cages, carts and machines that process animals after they are slaughtered at the market.

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