China has denied the World Health Organization access to bat caves and wildlife farming areas in a region six hours west of Wuhan — as it emerged that nearby wet markets were banned from selling live animals just days before Beijing acknowledged a new virus had been detected, according to a report.
WHO scientists have been trying to access hundreds of caves that contain bats in Enshi prefecture in Hubei province — west of the Chinese city where COVID-19 first emerged, The Washington Post said Monday.
The scientists also want to investigate nearby wildlife farming areas that, prior to the pandemic, were known to breed thousands of wild animals.
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Scientists believe those animals could have potentially been an intermediate host for the virus to spread from bats to humans — and argue that investigating the farms is a key step to determining the origins of the pandemic, the report said.
Researchers are probing natural transmission in addition to the theory that COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese lab.
One potential theory arising from natural transmission could be that the virus was passed from a bat to an intermediate host, such as a farm animal that went on to be sold at a wet market.
Beijing, meanwhile, has repeatedly claimed that the pandemic originated elsewhere.
But according to local Chinese media, wet markets in the Enshi region were banned from selling live animals in December 2019 — just eight days before the Chinese government publicly acknowledged that a new virus had been detected at a Wuhan wet market.
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Six wet markets in Enshi were closed by March 2020 as the pandemic took hold globally. It is still unclear why the markets were shut down so early.
A Wuhan market supply chain source told The Post that some wild animals sold in Wuhan prior to the pandemic were sourced from Hubei province, including from Enshi.
The caves in Enshi are also known to have human foot traffic, and some wildlife farms that have since been shut down are located about a mile from the entrance to the caves.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington could not confirm if bats or farm-raised wild animals in Enshi were ever tested for the virus.
Scientists believe the caves could potentially present a pathway for how the virus spread from bats to other animals, or humans, before reaching Wuhan — but nothing is concrete because of Beijing’s refusal to allow access.
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Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, told The Post that virologists need to find out more about what viruses are circulating in the Enshi cave bats.
“That kind of proximity of farmed animals and bats that could be carrying coronaviruses is exactly the kind of thing we worry about,” Worobey said.
This article first appeared in the New York Post.