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The Animal Origins of Coronavirus and Flu (quantamagazine.org)
69 points by bainsfather 43 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

An early 2019 review paper[0] by Chinese authors has this to say in its abstract:

During the past two decades, three zoonotic coronaviruses have been identified as the cause of large-scale disease outbreaks–Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome (SADS). SARS and MERS emerged in 2003 and 2012, respectively, and caused a worldwide pandemic that claimed thousands of human lives, while SADS struck the swine industry in 2017. They have common characteristics, such as they are all highly pathogenic to humans or livestock, their agents originated from bats, and two of them originated in China. Thus, it is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China. Therefore, the investigation of bat coronaviruses becomes an urgent issue for the detection of early warning signs, which in turn minimizes the impact of such future outbreaks in China. The purpose of the review is to summarize the current knowledge on viral diversity, reservoir hosts, and the geographical distributions of bat coronaviruses in China, and eventually we aim to predict virus hotspots and their cross-species transmission potential.

Is this prescient or purely coincidental or something else?

[0] https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4915/11/3/210/htm

Should be noted that the numbers in the intro are a bit off, the U.S. now has 57 cases.


Is there any sense for how accurate the case numbers are?

I've been thinking about it and I can't fathom how we would know of every case.

What percentage of adults who get the seasonal flu go see a doctor and get diagnosed, 10%? Coronavirus symptoms mimic the flu and can even by asymptomatic in people, meaning people can easily attribute symptoms to a bad cold/flu or not even notice them. On average someone with coronavirus spreads it to 3-4 other people. It's estimated that the virus started infecting people in early January, but China didn't start quarantining people until 3 weeks later or so.

I just don't see the math adding up, all it takes is a handful of people not seeking treatment in order for it to start spreading without our knowledge. There has to be thousands of additional cases around the world of that just aren't diagnosed, which is how we're suddenly seeing unexpected diagnoses in places without any previous outbreak like Iran.

We can't even test for it properly in the US right now:


And yeah, there are going to be a bunch of people here who won't seek help unless it gets really bad, and who will go to their jobs even if they feel crummy because they need the money, thus spreading it farther and more rapidly.

BTW, we were warned: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-t...

Our healthcare system is really going to bite us here too - people are extremely hesitant to seek medical care since there's such a crapshoot of costs that you could pay.

(e.g. the story of the person who was fearful after developing flu systems after traveling to China so he checked into the ER for testing and got a $3,500 bill that 'might' be knocked down to $1,400 if he provides 3 years of medical history to prove it wasn't a preexisting condition: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article24047680...)

So we have people who don't want to miss work and people who won't seek medical care unless they're in the later stages of the disease to avoid thousands of dollars of cost. Hopefully it peters out but this could get really ugly.

The US has tested a grand total of 445 persons since the beginning of the outbreak, according to this CDC page updated today, Feb 26. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html For comparison South Korea is testing several thousands per day.

To a lot of people it's pretty obvious that there are a lot of undiagnosed cases in the wild. They are not testing anyone unless you are coming from a known risk area, which means by definition they can't detect local community outbreaks.

> It's estimated that the virus started infecting people in early January

December 2019. That's why it is called COVID-19 to begin with, because it was first detected in 2019.

Note that 40 of these are assigned to the cruise ship off Japan.

Fun fact: Coronavirus also recognises sialic acids (but they need an extra acetylation on top).

Fun fact 2: Sialic acids are important for protecting your gut / balancing the microbiome.

Fun fact 3: Bats apparently have a much simpler microbiome (less weight, better flying), and can tolerate low levels of coronavirus infection.

I would bet the closest non-flying relative of a bat would get respiratory infections too.

> Fun fact: Coronavirus also recognises sialic acids (but they need an extra acetylation on top).

What do you mean by "recognises" here? Is sialic acid something that helps the coronavirus or something that hinders it?

The article describes how influenza viruses (not coronaviruses) use sialic acid to bind to the upper respiratory tract.

Edit: a letter.

I may have been a little hasty, which is to say COVID-19 might not recognise sialic acids. Which puts a bit of a dent in my theory.

But Sialic acids are really interesting!

Bats really do seem to serve as viral reservoirs at an exceptionally high rate[1]. SARS, MERS, coronavirus and ebola all likely seem to have originated in bats.

One thing we may have to consider is a policy of bat eradication. At least in populated areas. It would have some ecological consequences, but the risk of mass pandemic probably outweighs that cost.


I don't often say this outright, but that's a dumb idea.

"Insectivorous bats in particular are especially helpful to farmers, as they control populations of agricultural pests... It has been estimated that bats save the agricultural industry of the United States anywhere from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year in pesticides and damage to crops."[1]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat#Economics

> It has been estimated that bats save the agricultural industry of the United States anywhere from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year in pesticides and damage to crops

In comparison, the coronavirus scare has wiped out $1.5 trillion from US equity valuations just in the past two days. Even taking the higher end of that estimate, preventing one coronavirus epidemic every 20 years still passes cost benefit analysis.

I do not consider vagaries of the stock market a valid reason to potentially wipe out an entire species.

More than that, you correctly identify it as a scare, which should be a clear indication how a short-sighted policy that may be.

Valuations != realized losses.

Not to mention eradication efforts are expensive and can have their own unintended consequences. Offer a bounty, and now you have people breeding bats for the bounties. Introduce a bat-specific disease and it may mutate into something else. A bat-specific poison could turn out to poison things we care about.

Like seriously, it's a stupid idea. I'm sad I wasted so much time even debating you.

Getting people to stop eating bats would get us 95% of the benefit for 5% the effort.

Removing bats would create millionary damages in agriculture and would hit specially hard the tropical fruitculture. Kiling millions from famine and collapsing the ecology of tropical rainforests just to avoid a disease with a 96% probability of surviving is a really bad idea.

> One thing we may have to consider is a policy of bat eradication.

Holy crap! This is a bad idea. Just leave the bats alone. They serve as an apex predator to provide balance to the natural environment.

What's your opinion on Kudzu or Himalayan Blackberry as erosion control devices?

You could also replace "bats" by "humans" in your sentence ;)

i thought humans are just another animal. why the surprise about diseases jumping from other animals to humans

There’s no surprise, zoonotic viruses are well known. That said, viruses are usually highly adapted to a specific host. Jumping host species isn’t trivial, and the mechanisms for how this happens are worth exploring.

But usually zoonotic diseases are especially deadly since killing the host is not in a parasites best interest but new diseases haven't worked out an equilibrium with the victim species yet.


The bulk of our diseases are zoonotic in nature.


Has the figure at 61%.

Sure, but here is a key line from the Wikipedia article you reference: "Most human diseases originated in other animals; however, only diseases that routinely involve non-human to human transmission, such as rabies, are considered direct zoonosis"

You aren't going to catch the current coronavirus from your dog.

True. But you could catch Rabies.

The word "animal" is often used to mean "non-human animal." Context is key. I bet your locality has an Animal Control department, and you understand from context that it referes to non-human animals.

Jumping species tends to be a rare event with regard to diseases. But it is an important event, hence the article.

Where are you seeing surprise?

As with other attempts at sparking discussions on the origin [1], I'm not a virologist, just a bystander whose curiosity was piqued by the proximity of the sole lab in all of China that's equipped to handle/research extremely infectious viruses and that of the outbreak.

My observations (all facts)

1. Proximity of outbreak to sole advanced virology lab in all of China, suspicious

2. Publications ( https://jvi.asm.org/content/82/4/1899 )from lab suggest they were dealing with CoVid-19 like viruses for a while.

3. State of China would strongly deny/cover-up the lab to be the cause of outbreak, even if that did happen. I'm not suggesting they engineered the virus, just suggesting that they were researching animals with the virus, and a freak case of violating safety protocol let to the virus leaking to the nearby seafood market. Again - attributing this to clumsiness, not malice

Given the above, I think an investigative journalist would find the circumstances fertile enough for a deep investigation. Given how hard it is to identify patient zero of the outbreak, I think journalists need to go down this path of investigation

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22424013

There are US based researches on it already, and the evidence so far is it's not engineered. Your observations don't include all relevant facts, hence the conclusion can still be wrong. Like scientists in 18th century had all kind of weird ideas based on the facts they observed about the world. In today's world, for most of us, especially non experts on the fields, what really matters is all the facts out there that we don't know (or chose to ignore).


Given the above, I think you're grasping at straws.


Nothing in this image looks engineered. In fact, this is an illustration of a comparatively messy virus particle. Other viruses look a lot more regular and “artificial”. Check out the pictures (including actual SEM pictures) on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus. And if that doesn’t convince you, here’s what bacteriophages look like: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bacteriophage.jpg — Clearly nanobots, right?

>In fact, this is an illustration of a comparatively messy virus particle. Other viruses look a lot more regular and “artificial”.

Notwithstanding the main point you are making, why do you expect an engineered virus to look LESS messy? I would expect it to be a kludged-together frankenstein of different parts.

I’m assuming that the comment I was replying to was using the perceived “tidiness” of the picture as the sole evidence for their claim that it looks engineered. What else could they mean? — Of course you’re right that an engineered virion wouldn’t necessarily look tidier than a natural one. My comment wanted to point out that the perceived tidiness isn’t evidence of engineering.

If its engineered as a bioweapon, it is a very terrible design. It kills old people and people with pre-existing health issues. The flu already does that.

Does the typical flu spread as quickly or easily?

H1N1 infected at least 100mm people in 2009 and antibody studies says it maybe much higher. H1N1 wasn’t that deadly compared to spanish flu, or bird flu.

Preface: I am not a virologist. I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I would like to spark a discussion.


This 2007 paper from the Wuhan Institute of Virology claims that an "HIV-based psuedovirus system" could be used to enable SARS-Like CoVs to jump to human hosts. As we recently discovered, SARS-CoV-2 has 4-5 "HIV inserts."

Is it possible that SARS-CoV-2 was a byproduct virus engineered from this research?

I don't buy the bioweapon theory, I don't think there is any hard evidence to prove that. What I do buy is that there were two different labs doing work on coronaviruses near the seafood market attributed to the breakout (and we now know a dozen or so patients did not visit the market, meaning it came from somewhere else...), and it is entirely possible that a failure in safety protocol could have led to an accidental release of research samples into the real world. It would not be the first time it has happened.

I do still think it's entirely possible for it to have originated "in the wild" as well, but it would have to be a hell of a coincidence given the facts at hand.

On the HIV inserts, may I point you to this informative comment from a previous thread? I'm afraid it's not good information.


Thank you for the correction. I do see OP's points. This however does not invalidate the alternative theory that the virus was extracted from a bat in the wild and somehow escaped.

I wish there was a way to prove definitively if it escaped or not. Without the cooperation of the CCP or whistleblowers, we will never know for sure, at least until it can be traced to an exact animal at the market.

Do you have a source for the 4-5 HIV insert claim? Was it the paper referred to here?


> (and we now know a dozen or so patients did not visit the market, meaning it came from somewhere else...)

Somewhere else, as in, the people who did visit the market?

Entirely possible! But the main point is that these cases started to show at relatively the same time. That would mean that these 14 people would have all had to have close contact with the seafood market visitors almost immediately after they visited the market. Which is totally possible! But very unlucky.

> failure in safety protocol could have led to an accidental release of research samples into the real world

Geez. Now you’re just spreading conspiracy level nonsense, to find a convenient way to peg this on China’s government.

HN moderators, you need to filter this guy’s Reddit-level nonsense.

This is not the proper way to discuss safety. Protocols and regulations are responsible, not just people and organizations. When aviation accidents happen, the broader goal of agencies such as the FAA/NTSB is to identify what to change, not who to blame.

The broader point of my discussion is that this could have happened to any biolab, and it is important to figure out what happened so that if it did come from this lab, the proper measures can be taken to make sure it doesn't happen again.

If you want to talk about China specifically, here is a key Nature article: https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to...

> But worries surround the Chinese lab, too. The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy. “Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says.

Also, biolab incidents are as much of a conspiracy theory as historical events.

The article I link itself mentioned the SARS outbreaks in Beijing, indicating a previous safety issue.

In 1971 a Soviet bioweapon facility conducted an open air test of smallpox and accidentally infected 10 people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_smallpox_incident

At some point in the 1970s a Soviet bioweaponeer named Nikolai Ustinov accidentally injected himself with an extremely viral load of Marburg virus and died: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marburg_virus#Biological_weapo...

In 1978 a British photographer was "accidentally exposed to a strain of smallpox virus that had been grown in a research laboratory on the floor below her workplace": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_smallpox_outbreak_in_the_...

In 1979 a Soviet bioweapon facility accidentally released anthrax into the open air and killed 100 people (officially): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sverdlovsk_anthrax_leak

In 2004 a Russian scientist died of Ebola after accidentally injecting herself with it: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/25/world/russian-scientist-d...

In 2009 an American researcher came down with the Plague and died after being exposed to it in his lab: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6007a1.htm

Want more? Here's 450 (!!!) results from the CDC itself for the query "Laboratory-Acquired Infection": https://search.cdc.gov/search/index.html?query=Laboratory-Ac...

Countries range from the United States to India. To believe that China is somehow immune from human error is naive.

Two of these people injected themselves with things? Is it common practice to administer your own vaccines while in a biolab or something?

Working with viruses entails working with needles, so it's not ridiculous to foresee an event where a shaky hand or muscle memory could fail and cause you to inject yourself. In the case of the Ustinov incident, he was attempting to inject a guinea pig with an engineered version of what the Soviet Union had acquired from Kenya, and the guinea pig squirmed at just the wrong moment. Historically it may have been the highest viral load of Marburg Fever a human being has ever been exposed to. Ustinov took notes of his own deteriorating condition while his wife, who was also a researcher at the same lab, watched from outside the quarantine ward as his own organs liquefied into black goo. Eventually he was no longer able to use his own hands to write, fading in and out of consciousness, and he died two weeks later after the Soviet Union had exhausted its entire stock of Marburg antiserum. It was not a pleasant time.

Working on animals also entail working with needles, since in most cases you need to inject them with things that aren't airborne or aerosolized.

This sounds like Ebola.

Very much so. It's in the same class of viruses (filoviruses) as Ebola. It can only be handled in BSL-4 labs, but even then, there can be accidents.

> The virus can be transmitted by exposure to one species of fruit bats or it can be transmitted between people via body fluids through unprotected sex and broken skin. The disease can cause bleeding (hemorrhage), fever and other symptoms similar to Ebola.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marburg_virus https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filoviridae

Anecdotal: I had a discussion yesterday with someone who has very close connection to someone inside one U.S. intelligence agency. I asked him about the circumstantial evidence of virus engineering.

He told me that he recently directly asked his contact "is this virus engineered?" His contact could have answered "I can't discuss that", but the contact's answer was a direct "No".

There's already scientific research on whether it is engineered or not and the evidence so far is a strong no.


Which must mean that it was engineered by the agency that his contact works for. ;)

It looks about as engineered as a jellyfish looks engineered. Stop spreading nonsense.

Any particular reason we shouldn't dismiss you as a nutty conspiracy theorist, bot, shill, or other purveyor of BS?

(The picture shows nothing. If you have anything besides crazy FUD, here's your chance to tell us about it.)

Based on what? Gut feeling?

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