Where exactly did the Coronavirus originate from?

Originating in Hubei's capital of Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world.
Originating in Hubei's capital of Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world.
Image: Alexander Raths/123rf.com

Although the origin of the new coranavirus has been identified to likely be a wet market selling meat, seafood, produce and wildlife in Wuhan, China, it appears the virus originated from bats.

Zheng-Li Shi is a Chinese virologist and researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who identified and named the latest coronavirus, nCoV-2019. Together with a colleague, Cui Jie, in 2005 Shi discovered that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus – another type of coronavirus – originated in bats and was passed on to humans.

Shi has been working as a senior author as part of a team of researchers that released a draft paper (yet to go under peer review) earlier in January that found that nCoV-2019 most likely also originates in bats. At the beginning of the outbreak, the researchers obtained genome sequences from five patients. It was found that nCoV-2019 is 79.5% identical to the SARS-CoV and 96% identical to a bat coronavirus at a genome level.

Bats are believed to have been the source of both the SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks in 2002 and 2012 respectively. Speaking to Popular Science, infectious disease epidemiologist at Duke University in the United States, Gregory Gray, said bats have an unusual immune system that can tolerate a range of viruses, including coronaviruses. This, coupled with their ability to fly, means the virus may have spread through contact with other animals.

Whether or not the virus originated from the Wuhan wet market or made its way to the market and spread from there is debateable. Either way, following the revelation that Wuhan is the epicentre of the virus, the wet market trade has been banned.

Health experts have warned against the selling of live animals at markets which may foster the breeding of infectious diseases. Following the outbreak of SARS in 2002, the wet market trade was also banned but subsequently allowed to resume, as reported by The New York Times.