In a preprint released early of August 2021, a possible huge discovery was reported about the origin of COVID-19. According to the preprint, researchers had studied samples they were able to collect as part of a measles and rubella examination in Italy. They reported that they discovered evidence of Sars-CoV-2, or the COVID19 virus, in a genetic material in samples of 11 subjects which were all taken before the pandemic begun.
The earliest case they discovered was in the late summer of 2019, even before the virus spread in Italy and even earlier than December 8, 2019, said to be the date of the first discovered COVID-19 case in Wuhan, China.
According to Wired, the findings were, in theory, could prove to be a game changer and could forever change our understanding of how the virus came to be and how it spread. This is not the first study that tried to prove that COVID-19 was already in Italy even before the first case was reported in Wuhan. There has been tons of research about it but has been widely covered in the media, including the Chinese state media.
But authorities in China have been highlighting these studies as potential evidence that perhaps the pandemic didn’t even start in Wuhan after all.
But, science could still make mistakes.
In able to get data, the researchers increased tiny amounts of RNA or DNA in a sample. The method is highly vulnerable to contamination and prone to generating false positives.
In a report that was released earlier by the same lead author of the research, Elisabetta Tanzi, a professor at the University of Milan, together with her colleagues, said that they found evidence of Sars-CoV-2 in a boy residing in northern Italy. The boy had measles symptoms in during the discovery in November of 2019.
In the report published, researchers said that the lab was “designated as free from Sars-CoV-2” but the researchers used a sample from a positive patient that was provided by a local hospital. This only means that the virus was already in the lab, and was amplified to produce more of it so they could use it as a control to develop the test, says Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the university of Arizona.
In the paper released on August 2021, the researchers did not indicate that they use the same control but they also did not explain how they got hold of the controls they used. This means that a possibility of some virus floating around is high and they just are not aware of it. “It really does look like a classic false positive situation,” Worobey says.
In a timeline released by Italian authors, they also raised some questions about the researchers’ claims. They constructed a mutation tree of the virus which suggests that the Wuhan outbreak still begun before it moved to Italy in October of 2019, arguing that the virus did came from Wuhan before it did in Italy during the summer of 2019.
“It doesn’t fit anything that we were watching at the time,” said Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh. While Worobey said “It’s like finding an iPhone in a pharaoh’s tomb.”
Rambaut also is not convinced with the findings unless details about the controls used are released and a corroboration from another lab. “The burden is on them to demonstrate that these sequences are real.”
The European spread hypothesis has been circulating throughout the pandemic with supposedly new studies showing evidence that comes out every few months. But every study or paper that has been released, all of which are flawed or heavily relied on unusual methodology and majority are saying that the virus begun in Italy.
“People are encouraging each other,” Worobey said. “It’s genuine that people there really are convinced that there was an early outbreak, and they’re going and looking for evidence of it, and perhaps not being very self-critical of the evidence that they’re generating.”
“I don’t see any motive, but I think they’re not independent of each other,” Rambaut said, adding: “Because once this idea has caught hold, people then will go through their stored samples to see what they can find.”
Despite studies showing that the virus may have originated in Italy, Jesse Bloom, a viral evolutionary geneticist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, said: “There is overwhelming evidence that the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic originated in China, almost certainly in Wuhan.”
“Attempts by Chinese state media to argue that the pandemic might have originated elsewhere in the world are clearly scientific misinformation.”
But some scientists are arguing that the theory shouldn’t be discounted yet, and the several papers and studies are worth investigating.
In a statement released on Aug. 12, the World Health Organization said it is “working with a number of countries that have reported detection of Sars-CoV-2 in samples from stored biological specimens from 2019.” But it is clear that evidence presented are not strong.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” says Jonathan Stoye, a virologist at the Francis Crick Institute. “I’m not convinced that a dodgy piece of data on top of another dodgy piece of data on top of another dodgy piece of data leads one to a firm conclusion.”