Researchers say COVID-19 outbreak may have started in September

Conventional wisdom has been, for many months, that the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan in November before spreading throughout the city and then the world.

That narrative — produced by the Chinese government — may prove to be completely off-base, as scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge revealed that they believe the outbreak may have started months earlier. 

Months earlier

The Chinese government told the world that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified on November 17, 2019, in the Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.

A team of researchers at Cambridge, headed up by geneticist Peter Forster published a paper entitled “Phylogenetic network analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genomes” in a scientific journal on April 8.

In the paper, the team wrote that their analysis of 160 strains of the virus shows that the outbreak began sometime between September 13 and December 7.

The team arrived at this conclusion using a “graph used to visualize evolutionary relationships (either abstractly or explicitly) between nucleotide sequences, genes, chromosomes, genomes, or species” called a phylogenetic network.

Forster explained that the virus likely “started infecting and spreading among humans between Sept. 13 and Dec. 7, generating the network we present in [the journal] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Forster admitted that the study’s conclusion relies on the observed assumption that the virus consistently mutates about once per month and that such consistent changes are “admittedly unlikely to be the case, and the time estimate could therefore be wrong,” adding, “But it is the best assumption we can make at the moment.”

Place of origin

Considerable buzz has been building that the virus emanated from a virology lab located just miles from the city of Wuhan. Though the notion was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory in the early days of the outbreak, considerable new evidence has caused the US to begin investigating the theory as a real possibility.

However, Forster said he’s not so sure, stating when asked for his opinion on the matter, “If I am pressed for an answer, I would say the original spread started more likely in southern China than in Wuhan.”

Indeed, the researchers found that the sub-type of the novel coronavirus found to cause COVID-19 did not make it to Wuhan until January 17th. Instead, the Type A strain was found in Guangdong, a Chinese province about 500 miles south of Wuhan.

Forster cautioned that though the evidence gathered by the team may point to a different narrative than what has been assumed for several months now, “the conclusions should be treated with caution” due to small sample size and sparse data.

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