British study suggests new coronavirus may have originated months earlier in southern China

The novel coronavirus first made headlines in late December and early January, when stories began to emerge from the Chinese city of Wuhan about overcrowded hospitals and people collapsing in the streets. However, a British scientist is now arguing that the real origins of the COVID-19 pandemic go back much earlier. 

That’s the scenario that Peter Forster put forward on Thursday during a Sky News interview covered by Britain’s Daily Star. Forster is a geneticist at the University of Cambridge.

“The virus may have mutated into its final ‘human-efficient’ form months ago, but stayed inside a bat or other animal or even human for several months without infecting other individuals,” the Star quoted him as saying.

May have started in September

“Then, it started infecting and spreading among humans between September 13 and December 7, generating the network we present in [the journal] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS].”

Forester supported his argument by pointing to an analysis of strains of the virus using a “phylogenetic network.” The term refers to an algorithm used to track the movement of an organism based on changes in its genes.

“What we reconstruct in the network is the first significant spread among humans,” the Cambridge University scientist explained to his interviewer.

After looking at a thousand COVID-19 samples, Forster and his team determined that the disease had undergone hundreds of mutations.

Noting that it typically takes a month to mutate, this would suggest that the virus existed in host animals for a period of years before finally infecting humans. Further, Foster suggested that it didn’t originate where the outbreak was first documented.

More likely origin in southern China

“If I am pressed for an answer, I would say the original spread started more likely in southern China than in Wuhan,” Forster continued.

“But,” he added, “proof can only come from analyzing more bats, possibly other potential host animals, and preserved tissue samples in Chinese hospitals stored between September and December.

“This kind of research project would help us understand how the transmission happened, and help us prevent similar instances in the future.”

As of Saturday morning, John Hopkins University has reported a global coronavirus death toll of 150,000 deaths, with over 37,000 of those fatalities having occurred in the United States.

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