A virus 96 per cent identical to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was found in an abandoned mine in China seven years ago.
The bat-infested copper mine in Mojiang, western China, was home to a coronavirus that left six adult men sick with pneumonia and three of them dead.
Many scientific theories have linked Covid-19 back to bats, which commonly carry coronaviruses, and suggest that it passed through another type of animal which was taken to a busy market – possibly a pangolin.
Scientists took samples from the bats’ faeces, found on the cave floor, and stored them in a laboratory 1,000 miles away in Wuhan for years while studying them.
And last December, Wuhan became the source of a global coronavirus pandemic which has now infected more than 11 million people and killed 525,000.
That virus, named RaBtCoV/4991 at the time, now appears to be the closest relative to SARS-Cov-2, which is causing Covid-19, a Sunday Times investigation has found.
But Chinese researchers do not seem to have been forthcoming about the fact they found such a similar virus almost a decade ago in 2012, and especially not that it killed three men when it was discovered.
The virus has reportedly featured in only one widely-available scientific paper and that didn’t mention the fact it had caused fatal pneumonia in humans.
One scientist said that the trail of research suggests Covid-19 may actually have broken out into humans in a rural area of China near Mojiang and then been transported to Wuhan, a city of 11million people, where it triggered a global pandemic.
The discovery that something very similar to Covid-19 was circulating in bats in Mojiang – half of bats tested in the mine were carrying at least one type of coronavirus – has raised doubts about the true source of SARS-CoV-2.
It didn’t emerge in the market, it emerged somewhere else
The official story has been that the Covid-19 virus jumped from an animal – thought to be a pangolin – to humans at Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan city.
From there it spread throughout the population in the densely-populated city, which is a transport hub, and then onto trains and planes and around the world within weeks.
But it could have been spreading elsewhere first, and even Chinese authorities have since admitted that the market was a ‘victim’ of the epidemic rather than its source.
Dr Peter Daszak, a British animal disease expert, told The Sunday Times: ‘It didn’t emerge in the market, it emerged somewhere else.‘
He suggested it was already spreading somewhere around the mine in rural Mojiang and then broke out in Wuhan, which has a population of 11million people.
‘Fair assumption is that it spilt into animals in southern China and was then shipped in, via infected people, or animals associated with trade, to Wuhan.‘
The RaBtCoV/4991 virus appears to have caused an illness which sounds extremely similar to Covid-19, and has a genetic code 96.2 per cent matching with it.
The six men who fell ill with the virus in 2012 did so after being assigned to the mine to clear out the bat faeces – it is not clear exactly how it infected them.
But the men, who ranged in age from 30 and 63, all required intensive care treatment in hospital.
All had high fevers, body aches and coughs, and five of them were struggling to breathe.
All are symptoms that match those of Covid-19, and they tested negative for all the tropical diseases the doctors could think of, but two of them later tested positive in blood samples for having been infected with SARS or a SARS-like coronavirus.
The theory is the latest in a long line suggesting the possible origin of the Covid-19 virus, many of which lead back to wild bats in China.
Origin of coronavirus unknown?
It’s now widely accepted that the virus first began in bats, then infected another animal – such as a pangolin or a snake – and mutated into something that could be passed on to humans.
The Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention has now judged that the market in Wuhan was a ‘victim’ of coronavirus rather than the source of it.
A study of the animals being sold there rules the theory out, they said, after all samples of the animals in the market tested negative for Covid-19, meaning they could not have infected shoppers.
‘It now turns out that the market is one of the victims,‘ Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese CDC, told Chinese state media in a radio interview in May.
Colin Carlson, a zoologist at Georgetown University, said the outbreak of coronavirus being linked to the wet market was likely the site of a ‘super-spreader’ event, where one person spread the virus to many other people.
The revelation is likely to heighten speculation that the virus leaked from a Chinese research laboratory, including from US president Donald Trump, who said he’d seen evidence to prove it started in a virology lab, although both US and Chinese researchers say there is no evidence to support this theory.
U.S. claims the pandemic started in Wuhan laboratory
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May that there was ‘enormous evidence’ that the coronavirus pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan.
‘There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began. We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China,’ Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week.
‘We took a lot of grief for that from the outset. But I think the whole world can see now. Remember, China has a history of infecting the world, and they have a history of running substandard laboratories,’ he added.
‘These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab,’ Pompeo said.
Pompeo, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he agreed with a statement from the US intelligence community in which it concurred ‘with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified’.
But President Donald Trump has been critical of China’s role in the pandemic, insisting that Beijing recklessly concealed important information about the outbreak and he demanded that China be held ‘accountable’.
Trump has reportedly tasked US spies to find out more about the origins of the virus, first blamed on a Wuhan market selling exotic animals like bats, but now thought possibly to be from a virus research laboratory nearby.
That month Trump claimed that he had seen evidence that coronavirus started in the Wuhan virology laboratory and warned he could impose tariffs of $1trillion on China in retribution for the pandemic.
‘Yes I have. Yes I have,’ Trump said when asked if he had seen proof the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Technology.
The lab is located near a wet market that has been identified as the likely epicenter of the outbreak that took place late last year.
However, the president would not divulge what the evidence was that confirmed his suspicions, when asked by a reporter.
‘I can’t tell you that. I am not allowed to tell you that,’ he responded.