A fascinating article from The Sunday Times in London reveals a potential relative to the coronavirus strain currently ruining everyone’s 2020 plans may have its origins from an abandoned southwest Chinese copper mine…in 2012. It’s important to note the viruses mentioned in The Times report are similar but not exact so there’s no proof COVID-19 came from the copper mine.
On Tuesday April 24, 2012, a 45-year-old man with the surname of Guo was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit suffering from severe pneumonia.
The next day a 42-year-old man with the surname Lv was taken to the hospital with the same life-threatening symptoms, and by Thursday three more cases — Zhou, 63, Liu, 46, and Li, 32 — had joined him in intensive care. A sixth man called Wu, 30, was taken into intensive care the following Wednesday.
All the men were linked. They had been given the task of clearing out piles of bat faeces in an abandoned copper mine in the hills south of the town of Tongguan in the Mojiang region. Some had worked for two weeks before falling ill, and others just a few days.
Tongguan is nowhere near Wuhan, the believed site of the initial coronavirus outbreak. Wuhan becomes involved because the Wuhan Institute of Virology doctors discovered antibodies of a SARS-like virus in two survivors. Here’s where things get a little muddy, per The Times.
Researchers in China have been unable to find any news reports of this new Sars-like coronavirus and the three deaths. There appears to have been a media blackout. It is, however, possible to piece together what happened in the Kunming hospital from a master’s thesis by a young medic called Li Xu. His supervisor was Professor Qian Chuanyun, who worked in the emergency department that treated the men. Other vital details, including the results of the antibody tests, were found in a PhD paper by a student of the director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Li’s thesis was unable to say what exactly killed the three miners, but indicated that the most likely cause was a Sars-like coronavirus from a bat.
This goes against comments by Shi Zhengli aka China’s Bat Woman to Scientific American earlier this year about the abandoned mine.
“The mine shaft stunk like hell,” says Shi, who, like her colleagues, went in wearing a protective mask and clothing. “Bat guano, covered in fungus, littered the cave.” Although the fungus turned out to be the pathogen that had sickened the miners, she says it would have been only a matter of time before they caught the coronaviruses if the mine had not been promptly shut.
Muddied waters to say the least.
What we do know is WIV researchers took fecal samples from almost 300 bats and stored them at the Institute around 2013. We also know the U.S. raised concerns regarding the facility’s security following a 2018 visit. It’s still not clear when COVID-19 made its way onto the scene. From The Times:
Yu Chuanhua, an epidemiology professor at Wuhan University, has told Chinese media that one man was admitted to hospital on September 29 with Covid-19-like symptoms but it is impossible now to show whether he had the virus because he died. There were two more suspected early carriers of the virus from November 14 and 21 in the city’s 47,000-strong database of cases, but they are unconfirmed.
Probably the first confirmed case was a 70-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease, whose family had told researchers from Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital that his symptoms had begun on December 1.
From that point it accelerated to about 60 identifiable cases by December 20, according to government research data reported in the South China Morning Post. However, it would not be until a week later that Dr Zhang Jixian, of the Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine in Hubei province, became the first person to report a suspected outbreak to the provincial government.
There’s also the Reuters report from last month suggesting traces of coronavirus were discovered in wastewater in early 2019, long before the Wuhan outbreak. The likelihood of a false positive is high given COVID-19’s similarity to other SARS-like contagions.
Here’s where we go back to the abandoned copper mine. Shi wrote earlier this year there was a sample in WIV that was a 96.2% match to COVID-19. The Times takes it up from here.
In other words, RaTG13 was the biggest lead available as to the origin of Covid-19. It was therefore surprising that the paper gave only scant detail about the history of the virus sample, stating merely that it was taken from a Rhinolophus affinis bat in Yunnan province in 2013 — hence the “Ra” and the 13.
Inquiries have established, however, that RaTG13 is almost certainly the coronavirus discovered in the abandoned mine in 2013, which had been named RaBtCoV/4991 in the institute’s earlier scientific paper. For some reason, Shi and her team appear to have renamed it…
[R]esearchers in India and Austria have compared the partial genome of the mine sample that was published in the 2016 paper and found it is a 100% match with the same sequence for RaTG13. The same partial sequence for the mine sample is a 98.7% match with the Covid-19 virus.
Peter Daszak, a close collaborator with the Wuhan institute, who has worked with Shi’s team hunting down viruses for 15 years, has confirmed to The Sunday Times that RaTG13 was the sample found in the mine. He said there was no significance in the renaming. “The conspiracy folks are saying there’s something suspicious about the change in name, but the world has changed in six years — the coding system has changed,” he said.
Questions remain on how exactly the virus came about and, again, displays the pisspoor response from China on reporting the outbreak. It might not be wise to take this as a means for disengagement from China, as certain politicians clamor in their rhetoric. China’s saving face culture is still a mystery and possibly why Beijing (outside of Xi Jinping’s extreme nationalistic and authoritarian tendencies) stays mostly silent on the issue. My concern is that China will seek to become even more of an isolated nation that suddenly decides to take territory by force like 1930s Japan if it believes no one will engage with it. The carrot and stick approach doesn’t work at all when all someone sees is the stick.