The search for Covid in China’s Hubei caves and wildlife farms

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NSMany caves are spread in the mountains of Enshi Prefecture, an agricultural region of Hubei Province, China. The most majestic, the Tenglong, or “Flying Dragon”, is one of the largest karst cave systems in China, which contains many bats over 37 miles.

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Nearby are small farms that show licenses housed hundreds of thousands of wild mammals such as civets, ferret badgers and raccoon dogs before the pandemic – scientists say they may be intermediate hosts for the virus that passed from bats to humans. go.

The World Health Organization has requested access to China’s wildlife farming areas such as Enshi, calling it an important step in discovering the origins of the coronavirus. Beijing has denied the requests.


Washington Post In September made a rare visit to Enshi, a six-hour drive west of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected.

A reporter observed human traffic in the caves of Enshi, with domestic tourism and pits and villagers replacing drinking water pumps. The dormant wildlife farm sat about a mile from the entrance.

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Scientists say it documents a plausible route for how a coronavirus can spread from bats to other animals and then to markets in Wuhan.

Asked whether bats, farm animals and local residents had been tested for the coronavirus in Enshi, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington said they could not verify the specific situation at this time and added that China The U.S. had banned the trade and consumption of wild animals last February. Year. Enshi’s Forestry Bureau did not respond to faxed questions; Two officers declined to be interviewed.

According to the Zishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, a research institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, western Hubei is home to at least seven types of horseshoes. a kind, rhinophus affinis, has been found to carry 96 percent of the virus, similar to Sars-Cov-2 – Covid-19 in the south of China.

In the rolling land near the caves, Enshi officials had promoted wildlife farming for years to alleviate poverty. Official announcements show that Enshi accounted for 17 percent of Hubei wildlife farms that were closed in the pandemic. Officials estimated that there were 450,000 to 780,000 animals in the 290 closed Enshi farms.

The Chinese government and the WHO say the likely origin of the pandemic is natural transmission through wildlife. So far little progress has been made in establishing a definitive natural route to the Wuhan market – or to any competing theory – due to the Chinese government’s refusal to grant scientists access to the Wuhan market.

“We really need to figure out what viruses are circulating in those bats,” says Michael Vorobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. “That kind of close proximity of farm animals and bats that can carry coronaviruses is exactly the kind of thing we worry about.”

Marc Elloit, head of pathogen discovery at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, agrees that much more sampling needs to be done in China, and especially in these karst areas.

Eloit said he would be “very interested” in obtaining samples from bats and caves in Enshi, adding that collecting bat guano could be a start.

Beijing has been less than eager to find answers in Hubei, as it pitches its own theory that the virus may have originated overseas. A foreign scientist who worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology for years, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive cases, said the institute’s field research into bat caves has been rampant since the pandemic began. has been suspended.

But the Chinese authorities had enshi before they became aware of the threat of Covid-19.

A crackdown on Enshi’s wildlife trade in wet markets began on December 23, 2019, eight days before China publicly acknowledged the new virus, according to state media. The head start at Enshi doesn’t mean the authorities got something wrong: It could have been deterrent, as rumors surfaced of market vendors falling mysteriously ill in Wuhan. But it means evidence on Enshi’s wildlife trade was erased before the world knew about the existence of a novel coronavirus.

Since then, Beijing has turned down international calls for more information about the supply chains of live wildlife leading to Wuhan markets, even as local officials shut down wildlife farms – possibly the WHO Coming to some of the information requested by. US intelligence agencies told President Biden in August that the virus was not a biological weapon, but that natural transmission and a laboratory-related accident were likely origins.

During a visit to Enshi, a reporter was chased by men in several cars, who did not reveal their identity, but who would speak to interviewers later. None of the farm operators would say whether the animals were tested for Sars-Cov-2 before being disposed of or released.

The Lichuan Xuyuanxiang Special Breeding Cooperative in Anxi illustrates the difficulties WHO would have had in finding new evidence, even if they had been granted access. A two-story, concrete structure where animals were formerly kept is now empty, with vines crawling up.

“They were released back into the wild,” said a man by the surname Yang at Lichuan Xuyuanxiang Farm, which calls itself Hubei’s largest civet farm. “The government will not allow us to raise them any more.”

Visits to about a dozen other former wildlife farms in the area yielded similar stories. The owners were either not at home, refused to raise the animals listed on the business registration, or said they had stopped farming before the outbreak.

Yang, who identified himself as the uncle of the farm owner, said he had more than 1,000 civets at the time of the outbreak and that the farm had been closed as of May last year. His nephew, owner Yang Ankui, refused to speak when he won the phone.

In addition to the civet, the farm – which sat downstream from a large cave – was licensed to breed porcupines and wild boar.

Scientists say that Sars-Cov-2 probably originated from bats. How it got from a bat to a human is unclear, with the two prevailing theories debated.

According to the natural-transmission theory, the virus could have been passed directly to a human who wandered into a cave—perhaps a villager, a hunter, or a scientist. For example, if the civet drank water contaminated with bat feces, it could also have previously been transmitted to an intermediate host such as the civet.

A second theory holds that the outbreak may have stemmed from a laboratory accident; China’s most advanced coronavirus research lab is located in Wuhan. A separate team from the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019 is known to have searched bat caves in Hubei for new diseases. Chinese officials have denied having a laboratory accident.

Edward Holmes, a virologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, said that, to his knowledge, the bat was sampled by scientists, not inside Enshi, and that no coronavirus was detected, but added that the sample size were very young.

“I’m sure viruses like Sars-CoV-2 will be found in China in places where you will find rhinophus Bats,” said Holmes.

Some scientists are pushing for a more vigorous search for an intermediate host, which, if found, would be strong evidence for natural transmission. Other coronaviruses such as SARS and Mers were carried by intermediate hosts: civets and camels, respectively. Live wild animals were sold in Wuhan markets with the initial outbreak.

A man with knowledge of the Wuhan market supply chains, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his contacts, says live animals sold at markets in Wuhan are located in Hubei, specifically Anshi and Jiangning prefectures. was simultaneously obtained from Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. .

Chinese officials have avoided questions about the presence of live wild animals in Wuhan’s markets before the outbreak. a scientific report The journal study in June said the illegal sale of live wildlife in markets has not been covered by China’s state-run media. The two Chinese authors did not respond to requests for comment about what they knew about those supply chains.

International members of the joint WHO-China study on coronavirus origins, released in March, have said they believe live wildlife was removed from Wuhan markets before the Huanan market officially closed in January 2020. which was an early infection hot spot. The details in a WHO-China study on wildlife supply chains in that market focused on chilled and frozen meat products when approved by stall operators, not live animals traded there in previous months.

According to official trade registries, wildlife on farms in Enshi before the pandemic included possible intermediate hosts such as palm civets, raccoon dogs, porcupines, wild boars, elephants, rodents, ferret badgers, ocelots, muntjac deer and flying squirrels.

Huang Shuang, a chicken seller at the Yuanmengzhuang market in Anshi city, recalls live wildlife sold in late 2019. “The rules are really strict now, so you don’t see any more wild animals,” he said. “There were some here before, not many, but you could find some.”

On December 23, 2019 – eight days before the mysterious pneumonia was announced in Wuhan – the Enshi Forestry Bureau ordered the prefecture, a halt to the sale of live wildlife at state-run wet markets. Hubei Daily Reported in February 2020.

In January 2020, a month before China banned the trade and consumption of wild animals, the Enshi Forestry Bureau announced that a goal for the year was to improve wildlife breeding and strengthen surveillance for wild animal epidemics.

As of March 2020, at least six wet markets in the city of Enshi were closed.

Last month, the Enshi Forestry Bureau revisited enforcement steps, including wildlife farm shutdowns and cash rewards, for suggestions on violations.

Some online notices about local wildlife farming became inaccessible after officials were contacted.


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