The coronavirus pandemic first appeared in a seafood market in Wuhan City in Hubei Province, China, late December 2019. Since then, it has wreaked havoc in 188 countries and territories, infecting more than 21.67 million people worldwide and claiming over 775,000 lives.
Now, a report on the website Independent Science News by researchers Jonathan Latham, and Allison Wilson suggests that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), may not have originated at a Wuhan wet market in 2019, but 1,000 miles away in 2012, in a Chinese mineshaft where workers fell ill with a mysterious, pneumonia-like illness after being exposed to bats.
Exposure to bat feces
In 2012, six people at the Mojiang mine, in Yunnan province, experienced a pneumonia-like illness after removing bat feces in their area. Overall, three of the men had died after experiencing fever, dry cough, and other symptoms also typical in COVID-19 patients.
The researchers, virologist Jonathan Latham and molecular biologist Allison Wilson, who are from the Bioscience Resource Project in Ithaca, arrived at their findings after reviewing the thesis of a Chinese doctor, Li Xu.
Dr. Xu was the doctor of the miners who fell ill and sent their tissue samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for testing.
“The evidence it contains has led us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also led us to theorize a plausible route by which an apparently isolated disease outbreak in a mine in 2012 led to a global pandemic in 2019,” Lathan and Wilson wrote in their report.
The miners were treated with similar therapies used today for SARS-CoV-2 infection, including ventilation and the use of drugs, such as antibiotics, blood thinners, and steroids, among others. The doctor in 2012 also tested for other diseases such as dengue fever, hepatitis, and even HIV, to determine the cause of the mysterious illness. Also, they consulted many specialists throughout the country, including Zhong Nanshan, a doctor who managed the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“The remote meeting with Zhong Nanshan is significant. It implies that the illnesses of the six miners were of great concern and, second, that a SARS-like coronavirus was considered a likely cause,” Latham and Wilson said.
The samples sent to the Wuhan lab were studied in 2018 and was concluded to come from a horseshoe bat.
Intermediate Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus affinis). Image Credit: Binturong-tonoscarpe / Shutterstock
Similarities with SARS-CoV-2
The reports of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 varies, with some saying the virus comes from natural sources like wild animals, while some claim it was man-made.
However, Latham and Wilson said that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is based on the case histories of the miners and their hospital treatment. In SARS-CoV-2, it contains a furin site, which is new to the virus compared to its near relatives. The theory can explain the origin of the polybasic furin cleavage site, which is an area of the viral spike protein that makes it susceptible to bind with the host enzyme furin, increasing the chance of viral spread in the body.
Another theory that baffled scientists about COVID-19 is, there is an exceptional affinity of the virus spike protein for human receptors, which is surprising since if it has originated from animals, it would take some time for the virus to be accustomed to infect humans easily.
Lastly, the theory also explains why the novel coronavirus targets the lungs, which is unusual for a coronavirus.
In a separate study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a team of researchers studied a novel Henipa-like virus in rats in China in 2012. The study contained a report on the six miners who fell ill with severe pneumonia without a known cause.
The team investigated the presence of novel zoonotic pathogens in natural hosts in the abandoned cave and collected anal swab samples from 20 bats, nine rats, and five musk shews from the mine for virus analysis. They found that the virus obtained from samples shares similar features with henipaviruses, which are related to paramyxoviruses.
Currently, the coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 21.67 million, wherein the United States reports the highest number of infections, topping 5.40 million confirmed cases. Brazil and India follow with a staggering 3.34 million and 2.64 million cases, respectively.
- Wu, Z., Yang, L., Yang, F., et al. (2020). Novel Henipa-like Virus, Mojiang Paramyxovirus, in Rats, China, 2012. Emerging Infectious Diseases. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4036791/
- Wu Z, Yang L, Yang F, Ren X, Jiang J, Dong J, et al. Novel Henipa-like Virus, Mojiang Paramyxovirus, in Rats, China, 2012. Emerg Infect Dis. 2014;20(6):1064-1066. https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2006.131022
- Master's Thesis "The Analysis of Six Patients With Severe Pneumonia Caused By Unknown Viruses" - https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6981198-Analysis-of-Six-Patients-With-Unknown-Viruses.html