OUR MAN WHO digitally thumbs through the dusty tomes of academic journals sends word of a research paper that disappeared from view for 15 months but which, had it not been caught up in the void that can be academic publishing, could have been instrumental in the early days of Covid-19 in helping determine the origins of the virus.
This is a story of misfortune more than malfeasance. The paper was neither suppressed nor censored, Nor, in itself, would it have pinpointed the virus’s origins. Yet the data it contained, had it been known about, would have furnished support for the theory that the pandemic’s origins lay in zoonotic transmission to humans from wildlife sold in Wuhan’s wet markets,
China’s Centre for Disease Control had said before the central information clampdown in January 2020 that it had discovered traces of coronavirus in the sections of the Huanan market where the data was collected. Crucially, the data would have allowed health researchers early on to narrow their search to the species being sold and eliminated bats and pangolins, two early suspects.
Yet this data remained overlooked — unknown might be a better description — until it was eventually published in June as an academic paper in Scientific Reports, an online open-access but peer-reviewed academic journal of the German-British publisher Springer Nature.
For two and a half years, until stopped by the outbreak of Covid-19 in November 2019, Dr Xiao Xiao, a Chinese virologist working in the field of animal conservation, systematically catalogued live wild animal sales in 17 shops across four of Wuhan’s wet markets, including the Huanan seafood market that authorities shut down on January 1, 2020.
It is known that some of the earliest cases of Covid-19 were people working at market stalls from which Xiao regularly collected data.
Xiao is attached to the Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, China West Normal University in Nanchong and the Hubei University of Chinese Medicine in Wuhan. He was not researching coronaviruses but a deadly tick-borne infection, SFTS (Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome), that had broken out in Hubei province in 2009-10.
However, his monthly data collection built up a picture of which species were being sold in Wuhan’s wet markets in the run up to the outbreak of Covid-19, in what quantity and whether the individual animals had been farmed or caught (usually illegally) in the wild. Of the 38 species he came across over the two and a half years of his research, 31 are protected.
Xiao realised the potential usefulness of his data to those looking for the origins of Covid-19. In January 2020, he teamed up with a colleague at China West Normal University and three scientists from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to produce a paper containing his serendipitous data set. This outlined the range and extent of fundamentally illegal wildlife trading in Wuhan markets pre- COVID-19 and the unhygienic conditions in which that trade was conducted, including the butchering.
To give the paper timely relevance, it ruled out pangolins and bats as the source of the pandemic. Though both are know reservoirs for coronaviruses in the wild, the former are no longer much traded in China, and the latter are not typically eaten in Central China. Xiao had come across neither for sale.
The authors twice revised their paper following peer review, but after six months, as can happen in academic publishing, it was rejected as being of too narrow interest. The political debate around the origins of the virus had by then moved on to contesting theories about escapes from laboratories in China and the United States and imports of foreign frozen seafood and European minks.
The authors then submitted their paper to Scientific Reports in October 2020.
Following its routine practice, Springer sent a copy to the World Health Organisation, but that seemingly languished unread in a WHO email box with thousands of other unpublished submissions. A copy sent to the Covid-19 team similarly failed to stand out among the welter of reports it was receiving.
The paper was still languishing unread when the WHO finally sent an inspection team to Wuhan in February 2021. Though members of the team visited the Huanan market, the trail was cold. They were also told that no illegal live animals were sold there. Authorities produced long-standing shoppers to attest to the point. Had the WHO inspectors had Xiao’s data, they could have contested that assertion.
As the final version of the paper published in June says:
Furthermore, the WHO reports that market authorities claimed all live and frozen animals sold in the Huanan market were acquired from farms officially licensed for breeding and quarantine, and as such, no illegal wildlife trade was identified. In reality, however, because China has no regulatory authority regulating animal trading conducted by small-scale vendors or individuals, it is impossible to make this determination.
China has extensive regulation of illegal wildlife trading, but the report makes it abundantly clear that its enforcement in Wuhan was lax in the extreme. Local officials’ scrubbing clean of the Huanan market in early January may have been more about covering that up that than anything directly related to the virus’s origins.
The statement by the Hubei provincial government in April 2020 that the sale of live wild animals and poultry would be strictly prohibited as markets re-opened in Wuhan may be a tacit admission of this.