Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Was Covid Everywhere Before It Was in Wuhan?


Image via Loyal Companions.

So sometime in the spring of 2017 doctors in Malaysia discovered a new coronavirus that didn't seem like a big problem, infecting a bunch of kids in a hospital but not dangerously. The interesting thing about it was that the kids had apparently caught it from dogs, and not from each other; genomic analysis showed that it was a canine virus (apparently there are a lot of canine coronaviruses).

At the same time, members of a team of American medical volunteers in Haiti, 11,000 miles away, were also getting infected by something: when they got home to Florida, some of them felt "a bit under the weather". Not exactly sick, but they had slight fevers and they weren't at their best. Because the zika virus was circulating in Haiti at the time, they got themselves tested, but they didn't have zika. The virologist who tested them, though, John Lednicky of the University of Florida, was curious enough to want to see if there might be some other virus in their urine samples, and there was: the exact canine coronavirus that was infecting kids on the other side of the planet, as it turned out, four years later, last May.

"The virus probably circulates widely, but no one has paid attention to it," Lednicky says. He suspects it's all over the world. And if you've been around dogs frequently, you might have been infected with this virus — or developed an immunity to it by exposure to similar virus. "We'll know when scientists start looking for antibodies inside older blood samples taken from patients with respiratory disease. How many of them were misdiagnosed all along?" 

The good news, says NPR's science correspondent Michaleen Doucleff, is that virologists are now really starting to work on identifying and tracing all kinds of viruses that aren't problems—at least not yet. But the thing that really struck me was the likelihood that SARS-2 CoV was probably circulating all over the world too, before December 2019:

"Almost certainly, SARS-CoV-2 was circulating for quite some time and making people either a tiny bit sick or not sick enough to be noticed," she says. If scientists had detected it at this stage, perhaps the world would have had time to develop a test for it, some promising treatments and even a preliminary vaccine. Perhaps the pandemic would have taken a much different — perhaps less deadly course.

It doesn't occur to NPR to say so, but the whole story looks to me like strong evidence that the science-fiction "lab leak" story of the Covid-19 pandemic is just wrong—the story that came out of Italy a year or so ago, and caused a lot of pushback in the Covid community, in which Italian scientists claimed to have found antibody evidence of the novel coronavirus in Lombardy two months earlier than the Chinese identified the virus itself in Wuhan, implying that whatever happened to the virus in Wuhan that made it transmissible among humans happened in Milan too, around the same time, becomes really plausible. 

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