The virus, SARS-CoV-2, is in the same family tree of viruses such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, both of which have origins tracing back to bats. Both of these viruses led to the two previous pathogenic novel coronavirus outbreaks in the past two decades; severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
All three of these diseases are known as zoonotic diseases, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people. While the origins for SARS-CoV-2 may have originated in bats, it was likely spread to an intermediate host first, then to humans. An intermediate host will harbor an immature parasite or virus allowing it to transfer between species that don’t normally come in contact. SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV both have their own intermediate host, with SARS-CoV transferring from Palm Civets and MERS-CoV from camels.
In terms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, an intermediate animal is currently unknown. There has been speculation that the seafood and live animal market in Wuhan was the most plausible origin for the virus to spread from animals to humans. However, some of the earliest reports of the COVID-19 cases were not connected to the market. This had led some to speculate that the jump from animals to humans may have occurred elsewhere, potentially farms, restaurants, other markets, wild animals and trade.
According to Quanta Magazine, the way for a disease to transfer from animals to humans can be broken down into two main questions; “Can a virus reach the cells of its host? And can the virus’s proteins recognize and bind to structures, known as receptors, on those cells?”
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then a disease would be able to transfer. They stated the virus will use a protein with sugars attached to bind to host cells. The variation in these proteins allows the virus to bind to many different species. The coronaviruses that most commonly infect humans tend to latch onto three specific receptors on those cells. These proteins are all present in cells of the human airway, making any airborne virus much easier to catch. In summary, due to the way the virus spreads, humans are more susceptible to catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Due to the uncertainty of COVID-19’s origins, conspiracy theories have begun to arise claiming the virus was not naturally occurring. Some theories point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists study coronaviruses from bats. Speculations have arisen that the SARS-CoV-2 virus must’ve been bioengineered, or one of the scientists was infected at the lab and spread it through human contact. However, in a study from Virological, they concluded “Although genomic evidence does not support the idea that SARS-CoV-2 is a laboratory construct, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here.”
The legitimacy of theories such as these have mostly been disproved, many scientists and health officials have been working to debunk and discourage the spread of misinformation, and they encourage individuals to rely on reputable health and news organizations as research continues to evolve.
The first official case of COVID-19 is unclear, and it wasn’t until Dec. 31 2019, when the government of Wuhan, China had officially confirmed they had been dealing with an illness that was initially described by the New York Times as similar to pneumonia. The first known death of the virus wasn’t until Jan. 11 2020. It was a 61-year-old man who was a regular customer at the Wuhan market. Soon after confirmed cases began to arise in nearby countries such as Thailand, South Korea and Japan.
The first documented case of COVID-19 within the U.S was Jan. 20 2020, after a 35-year-old man was admitted to a hospital in Snohomish County, Washington, a day prior. It was confirmed by the CDC that the man tested positive for COVID-19. In a report from The New England Journal of Medicine, it is said the man had visited Wuhan, China, but had not visited the seafood and live animal market, any health care facilities and never came into contact with anyone who was sick.
As the situation continues to unfold, more and more information will be revealed. Until then, the exact origins will remain unknown.
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