China is once again trying to shift blame for the origin of the coronavirus to another country.
A team of scientists has published a paper suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 existed on up to four continents before the Wuhan outbreak late last year.
It comes just as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it would finally begin a long-awaited international investigation into the source of the pandemic that shut down much of the world for nine months.
The WHO expert team believes that the original pathogen jumped from an animal to a human, but will now try to determine where and how this happened.
China does not dispute that the virus was first discovered in humans in Wuhan last December, but it is not the original hometown.
The heated debate had soured relations between China and the US after President Donald Trump repeatedly blamed co-power in the “Wuhan flu” and accused the Chinese government of concealing the truth.
Now, new research led by Dr. Shen Libing of the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences has theorized that the coronavirus originated in India, not China.
“The Early Cryptic Transmission and Evolution of Sars-CoV-2 in Human Hosts” was posted on the online pre-print platform for medical journal The Lancet on November 17.
The paper delved into information about the coronavirus provided by 17 different countries and regions, going back to India or Bangladesh.
The findings have yet to be fully peer-reviewed.
Dr Shen said the traditional phylogenetic analysis approach failed to locate the first strains of coronavirus because it used a bat virus, which was not the ancestor of the human virus.
Instead, his team counted the mutations in each viral strain, assuming that those with fewer mutations are closer to the original ancestor.
They found that some strains had even fewer mutations than the first samples from Wuhan, and concluded, “Wuhan cannot be the first place where human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission has occurred.”
The researchers claim that the least mutated species was found in eight countries on four continents: Australia, Bangladesh, Greece, the US, Russia, Italy, India and the Czech Republic.
But the virus couldn’t have jumped to humans from all of these places at once, so the first outbreak must have occurred in a region of great genetic diversity – and nowhere is genetically as diverse as India and Bangladesh.
They theorized that extreme weather could have triggered the pandemic, pointing to May 2019, when India had its second-longest heat wave on record. This would have meant that more people and animals would share drinking water sources.
“Both the geographic information of the least mutated tribe and the diversity of the tribes suggest that the Indian subcontinent may be the site of the earliest human-to-human transmission of Sars-CoV-2,” the paper concluded.
But the findings have been criticized by other experts who have said the wrong software and research principles have been used.
David Robertson of Glasgow University told Mail Online that the paper is “very flawed” and said “it adds nothing to our understanding of the coronavirus.”
Marc Suchard, an expert at the University of California, told the South China Morning Post, “Choosing the viral sequence that appears to have the least number of differences from the others in a random collection is unlikely to produce the precursor.”