She couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the preprint on the server. There was a massive effort to survey bat viruses in China in order to find clues to the origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic. More than 17,000 bats were trapped and tested by a team of 21 researchers from the country's leading academic institutions.

zero is the number they found.

The result was a surprise. They concluded that relatives of the disease are extremely rare in China and suggested that bat surveys should be done abroad in order to find out what caused the disease.

Hughes is a biology student at Hong Kong University. In May and November of 2020, she did a survey of 322 bats in the Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The garden is three times the size of New York City's Central Park and contains four different types of Viruses related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-CoV-2.

The abandoned mine where the bats were found was one of the sites where the new study had found another close relative of the coronaviruses. The only Viruses found were close to the one that caused the outbreak of Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2 decades ago.

The preprint of the Cell paper was dismissed with a single word: "bullshit" by the co-author of the paper. There is a big contradiction between this study and others that need to be explained.

There is a political reality in China. The Chinese government has been against the idea that the WIV may have been the source of the swine flu. Over the past 2 years, it has started to push back against what many consider to be the only plausible alternative scenario, which is that the epidemic began in China with a virus that jumped from bats to humans.

At first, Beijing was willing to consider the idea. It points to a number of ways that the disease could have come in from abroad, such as contaminated frozen food or foreign visitors at the Military World Games in October 2019. Filippa Lentzos is a sociologist at King's College London who studies biological threats and health security. She says that China doesn't want to be seen as bad. The image of control and competence needs to be maintained. Everything they do is done through that.

Police closed the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan in January 2020, shortly after the first cluster of COVID-19 cases surfaced.Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
A hall at Huanan market, with all the stalls closed and the entrance blocked by a gate and police tape. At the far end of the hall are two people in full-body PPE. A guard outside the WIV holds up a hand to block the camera. The guard wears a surgical mask and a dark-colored uniform, including a hat whose brim hides the top half of their face. The WIV buildings behind them appear hazy in the heavy fog.
China has rejected calls for independent probes of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and dismissed the theory that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from its labs.Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

Many scientists don't believe in the idea of a Chinese origin for the H1N1 virus, even if they think it started with a lab leak or a jump from animals. There is no way that the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-CoV-2 could have come from somewhere other than the site of its birth. The idea that the H1N1 didn't originate in China is inconsistent with many other things. Gregory Towers of University College London leans towards a natural origin when it comes to eliminating the absurd.

Chinese researchers have published papers in support of the government's "anywhere-but-here" stance. Bats and other wild and captive animals in China don't show signs of the disease. There are clues that the virus hitched a ride to China. Chinese researchers are not publishing attempts to find the source of the mammals sold at the Huanan market, which could provide clues to the origin of the virus.

The lead author of the Research Square preprint wouldn't say if the study was checked by the government. He doesn't believe that his results were influenced by Beijing. The team does not represent the government or anyone else according to a letter written by the team's leader. All of our data is open access.

The Chinese scientists are entwined in the government's political messaging. The official narrative seems to be that the investigations have been completed and they couldn't find where it came from. This is not a problem from China. He says his Chinese co-conspirators are wary of conflicting with their own findings and opinions.

It became too difficult for Hughes to continue her bat research in China. She needed a green light from the government and the CAS for most of her research. She says the dialogue is about not wanting it to come from here. That isn't a good way of doing science.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) was headed by George Gao, who is a lead author on several key papers about the origins of the swine flu. I can't say anything. The person sent a text back. I wish you the best of luck.

It wasn't controversial to think that it all started at the Huanan market. There were 27 unexplained pneumonia cases linked to the market, which was immediately closed. The China CDC Weekly concluded that all current evidence points to wild animals being sold illegally in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. All but two of the 33 samples from the market that tested positive for the virus were from areas that sell wildlife. The results suggested that the virus came from wild animals that were sold at the market.

The research on origin continued in China during the spring and summer. Her group dug into bat samples it had collected at the Xishuangbanna gardens and found one of the closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2. We were encouraged to do more work throughout the year.

The Chinese government had begun to tell a different story. Almost half of the earliest cases had no connection to Huanan, raising doubts about its role in the outbreak. The lab-leak theory had begun to circulate internationally, and before long, then-U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the bat coronaviruses for sparking the "kung flu" epidemic. China's foreign ministry spokesman asked if the virus came from a U.S. army lab in Maryland.

The Chinese government started to control interactions between researchers and the media. Permission from the Ministry of Science and Technology was needed suddenly. It was for a good reason. They didn't want the bad science to come out.

quotation The dialogue is just: ‘We don’t want it to have come from here in any form.’
  • Alice Hughes
  • Hong Kong University

A March 2021 report from an international team sent to China earlier in the year was colored by the country's new mindset. The frozen food scenario was ranked as possible by the report. The report questioned if the jump could have happened at the Huanan market, since animals that might have carried the virus weren't there. There were no verified reports of live mammals being sold.

Politics played a role in both statements according to a prominent member of the WHO team. She never stocked up on frozen food. She says the international scientists on the mission were skeptical of the idea that mammals weren't sold at the market. They showed their Chinese counterparts a picture that was taken a few years ago at the market that showed a dog that was susceptible to the disease.

The international scientists went along with the phrase "no verified reports" because of the political situation.

Chris Newman, an ecologist at the University of Oxford who has studied the illegal sale of wildlife at Chinese markets for many years, said the report marked a shift in the Chinese government's strategy. They tried to change the narrative but were stuck in it. They are trying to find a plausible explanation. Being caught in a lie is almost like being caught in a prank.

Health officials in Taiyuan swab fish at a market in January 2021. Chinese researchers say imported frozen food has caused COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.Wei Liang/China News Service via Getty Images
Two workers in full-body PPE use cotton swabs to take samples from rows of whole frozen fish on a table. Several other marketgoers are in the background, wearing surgical masks but no other PPE. A scientist wearing full-body PPE, including a respirator, disentangles a bat from a net. The scientist's headlamp shines through the bat's translucent wings in the darkness.
A bat is sampled for viruses in Thailand. China insists SARS-CoV-2 likely originated outside its borders and has advocated for more global efforts to find the virus’ origin.Andre Malerba/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newman was aware that the statement about the Huanan market was incorrect. Someone was misrepresenting the World Health Organization. A study led by Zhou Zhao-Min of China West Normal University looked for the source of a tick-borne infection in mammals that were sold in the market for 2 years prior to the epidemic. There were over 50,000 mammals for sale at the markets. The raccoon dogs and civets are vulnerable to the disease.

The team could have published the study as a preprint, but it wanted the credibility of a peer reviewed paper. It took a while. The glaring misdirection in the WHO report was revealed in June 2021. The draft of Zhou and Newman's paper was sent to WHO in October 2020, but the agency didn't bother with it. It was a big problem. I think that it is annoying.

Zhou and Xiao Xiao did not speak to Science about the study. They were told off when the paper came out. They were told to stop working on the trade in animals. They were concerned.

The paper didn't say if the researchers collected ticks or biological samples from the animals. Both could be used to find out which animal species harbored the disease. Newman wasn't involved with the sample collection, so he asked Zhou, but he didn't get anything. Zhou is not allowed to say anything, and he doesn't reply. It is obvious that someone in the ChineseCDC has done that. Somebody knows the answer, right?

The WHO report was criticized by everyone from the Director-General to the President of the United States. To trace the initial spread of the disease, retrospective analyses of Chinese hospital records prior to the outbreak, and mapping supply chains of farms were all scuttled by the government. The whole process is terrible.

There was finger-pointing at other countries. The WHO committee had carried out an extensive investigation in Wuhan in the past year according to a four-page correspondence published in The Lancet. It was argued in the letter that it was reasonable to start a world wide hunt for the origin. The article said that the massive global investigation should be carried out by scientists on the basis of science alone, without interference or pressure from political forces.

quotation China just doesn’t want to look bad. They need to maintain an image of control and competence.
  • Filippa Lentzos
  • King’s College London

More than two dozen reports from Chinese scientists suggest the virus came from somewhere else. The imported frozen food hypothesis was explored by a number of people. There were small outbreaks of imported salmon at a Beijing market, frozen cod at shipping docks in Qingdao, and imported pollock at a company in Dalian after China stopped COVID-19 transmission. More than 50 million samples of frozen food from across China were tested and 1500 of them contained genetic remnants of the virus. According to the China CDC Weekly, they can't be sure that the initial Huanan market outbreak was caused by just such contamination.

Food regulators in the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand did not detect infectious virus on the food. Imported frozen food is not connected to the outbreak at the Huanan market.

The virus had to be already circulating somewhere else, and there was no evidence of that. Studies from Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, and the United States have found genetic pieces of the virus in samples from patients and wastewater before the outbreak. Skeptics say the Chinese scientific papers and media have made a lot of such findings, but that the viral traces may be a result of other diseases.

The frozen food route is not worth talking about. It could be that it came from Cosmic Dust.

Foreign researchers are not allowed to conduct independent origin studies in China. The new analysis of the outbreak's early days was published in two preprints by a large international team.

The authors argued that reports suggesting some cases were not connected to the market were incorrect.

The preprint from China was published a day before the one from CCDC. The study found that the virus was in the sewer, on the ground, and in containers, which may have been used to hold mammals.

In a metagenomic analysis, the researchers found that several samples had a blend of viral and humanRNA, which may have been derived from Homo sapiens. Humans didn't catch the disease from animals at the market People may have brought it to the market from somewhere else.

quotation More and more clues … are pointing the origins of SARS-CoV-2 to sources around the world.
  • Zhao Lijian
  • Chinese foreign ministry

The researchers mentioned viral traces on imported frozen food and studies from other countries as possible clues to a foreign origin. There is more work that needs to be done to investigate the true origins of the disease.

They were gobsmacked by the study not saying anything. In a graphic that illustrates the metagenomic analysis, dots show the viruses mixed with the RNA from other species, but the preprint doesn't specify which species. The other animals are ignored.

It is not clear whether the omission was intentional or due to sloppy science, but either way, I said you cannot publish this unless they release the raw data. The reviewer noted that the paper included an analysis of a sample from a defeathering machine that found only human DNA. The reviewer says that either humans were defeated or the analysis was wrong. Science requested a discussion of the metagenomic data.

A new international team of 26 people was created by the World Health Organization in an attempt to restart the origin probe. Although members from China, Russia, and Brazil dissented from the report, it still offers recommendations similar to those of the earlier team.

The Chinese government had a line called "anywhere but here". According to the foreign press ministry, more and more clues from the international science community point to the origin of the disease. He mentioned the reports of very early cases outside China and called for an investigation at the Fort Detrick laboratory.

Many Chinese researchers still think that the virus came from China. He says that they have never ruled out China in the next phase of the investigation. In response to peer reviewers, his team has toned down some of its bold assertions. The manuscript now says that the viruses may be rare.

At the local level, the research on bats has continued to be restricted, even though Hughes experienced it. He says that people are afraid to help out bat researchers in case they get in trouble. What Irving calls nonscientific interference has taken a toll on his work. Everyone in the bat field is very cautious because they don't want to be seen.

Too much time has passed since the origin mystery was solved. Others say they only need a few more pieces to complete the puzzle. Some of those pieces may have been held by Chinese officials. He says that they should be in a better position to know more.

Newman says there is no shame in admitting that the virus came from illegal animals. The Chinese have not given us a clear explanation, so leaving it as an open question will make us curious. The smoke and mirrors are not the reason. If they come up with something that we can all agree on, then it will be over. Can't we convince them that this is the right thing to do?