Cave diving for the origin of COVID-19, six hours west of Wuhan

Author: | Posted in World News No comments

In the rolling country near the caves, Enshi officials for years promoted wildlife to alleviate poverty. Enshi accounted for 17 percent of Hubei’s zoos that were shut down in the pandemic, official announcements show. Authorities estimated that the 290 abandoned Enshi farms had 450,000 to 780,000 animals.

The Chinese government and WHO say the probable origin of the pandemic is natural transmission through wildlife. Nevertheless, little progress has been made in establishing a definitive natural path from a bat to a Wuhan market – or for some competing theory, for that matter – due to the Chinese government’s refusal to give researchers access.

Men from a nearby village take a repaired pump back to one of the caves in the Tenglong complex.

Men from a nearby village take a repaired pump back to one of the caves in the Tenglong complex.Credit:Washington Post

“We really need to find out more about the viruses that circulate in these bats,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. “This type of proximity to farmed animals and bats that can carry coronavirus is exactly the kind of thing we worry about.”

Marc Eloit, director of pathogen detection at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, agrees that much more sampling needs to be done in China, and specifically in these karst areas.

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

“Released in the woods”

Beijing has been less than eager to find answers in Hubei, as it highlights its own theory that the virus may have originated abroad. A foreign researcher who worked for several years with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive issues, said that the institute’s field research in bat caves has been suspended since the pandemic began.

But Chinese authorities had Enshi in sight before the threat of COVID-19 was known.

A shutdown of Enshi’s wildlife trade in wet markets began on December 23, 2019, according to state media, eight days before China publicly acknowledged the new virus. The lead in Enshi does not mean that officials found anything wrong: it could have been preventive because rumors arose that market vendors were mysteriously ill in Wuhan. But that means that evidence of Enshi’s wildlife trade was erased before the world was aware that there was a new coronavirus.

Since then, Beijing has rejected international calls for more information on supply chains of wildlife leading to Wuhan markets, even when local officials closed zoos – possibly encountering some of the information the WHO is seeking. US intelligence officials told President Joe Biden in August that the virus was not a biological weapon, but that natural transmission and a laboratory-related accident were possible sources.

During the trip to Enshi, a reporter was followed by men in several cars who did not identify themselves, but who would later talk to interviewees. None of the farm’s operators would say whether the animals had been tested for SARS-CoV-2 before being thrown or released.

Near the entrance to the older part of the Tenglong Cave in China's Hubei Province.

Near the entrance to the older part of the Tenglong Cave in China’s Hubei Province. Credit:Washington Post

The Lichuan Juyuanxiang Special Breeding Co-operative in Enshi illustrates the difficulties that the WHO would have in finding fresh evidence, even if it is granted access. A two-storey, concrete structure where the animals were previously kept is now empty, vines crawling up the side.

“They were let back into the forest,” said a man named Yang at Lichuan Juyuanxiang Farm, which called itself Hubei’s largest civet farm. “The government does not allow us to address them anymore.”

Visits to nearly a dozen other former game farms in the area yielded similar stories. The owners were either not at home, refused to raise animals registered in business registers or said they stopped farming before the outbreak.

Yang, who identified himself as the farm owner’s uncle, said they had more than 1,000 civets at the time of the outbreak and that the farm was shut down in May 2020. His nephew, owner Yang Ancui, refused to speak when reached by phone.

Apart from the civets, the farm – which sat down from a large cave – was licensed for breeding porcupines and wild boar.

Push for investigation

Researchers say that SARS-CoV-2 probably originated in bats. How it went from a bat to a human is unclear, with debate about two prevailing theories.

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

A second theory suggests that the outbreak could have originated from a laboratory accident; China’s most advanced coronavirus research laboratory is based in Wuhan. A separate team at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention is known to have searched bat caves in Hubei for new diseases in 2019. Chinese officials have denied that a laboratory accident occurred.

Edward Holmes, a virologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, said that as far as he knew, bat sampling had been done by researchers near Enshi but not inside Enshi, and that no coronavirus had been detected, but added that the sample size was too small.

“I’m sure SARS-CoV-2-like viruses will be found in China in places where you can find Rhinolophus bats,” Holmes said.

Some researchers are pushing for a more powerful search for an intermediate host, as if found would be strong evidence of natural transmission. Other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS were carried by intermediate hosts: civets and camels respectively. Wuhan markets with early eruptions had sold live wildlife.

A person with knowledge of Wuhan market supply chains, who spoke anonymously to protect his contacts, said that live animals sold in markets in Wuhan came from Hubei, especially Enshi and Xianning prefectures, as well as from Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.

Chinese authorities have denied questions about the presence of live wildlife in Wuhan markets before the outbreak. A study from Scientific Reports in June that cataloged illegal sales of live wildlife in the markets have not been covered by China’s state media. The two Chinese authors did not respond to requests for comment on what they knew about these supply chains.


International team members from the joint WHO-China study on the origin of the coronavirus released in March has said they believe that live wildlife has been removed from the Wuhan markets before the official January 1, 2020, the closure of the Huanan market, an early contagion. Details of the WHO-China study on wildlife supply chains in that market focused on chilled and frozen meat products left behind when stall operators cleaned out, not on live animals traded there in previous months.

Wild animals born in Enshi before the pandemic included potential intermediate hosts such as palm pieces, raccoon dogs, porcupines, wild boars, hedgehogs, rodents, badgers, ocelots, muntac deer and flying squirrels, official business records show.

Huang Shuang, a chicken seller at Yuanmengzhuang Market in Enshi Town, recalled that live wildlife was sold in late 2019. “The rules are really strict now, so you will not see any more wildlife,” he said. “There were some here before, not much, but you can find some.”

On December 23, 2019 – eight days before Wuhan announced a mysterious pneumonia-ordered Enshi Forestry Agency to stop the sale of wildlife in wet markets in the prefecture, the state Hubei Daily reported in February 2020.

In January 2020, one month before China banned the trade and consumption of wildlife throughout the country, the Enshi Forestry Agency announced that one year’s goal was to correct breeding and strengthen surveillance of wildlife epidemics.

At least six wet markets in the city of Enshi were closed in March 2020.

A report from the Enshi Forestry Agency in September this year outlined enforcement steps, including the suspension of wildlife and cash rewards for tips on violations.

Some online messages about local wildlife became inaccessible after Stolpen contacted Enshi’s authorities.

Humans have long encountered bats at Tenglong Cave, according to residents and news reports. As early as 1988, the Belgian-Chinese Karst and Caves Association reported “intensive use by the inhabitants” of the cave, including digging out bats for manure.

Tourists cross a bridge above where the Qing River flows through the Tenglong Cave.

Tourists cross a bridge above where the Qing River flows through the Tenglong Cave.Credit:Washington Post

Tourists and adventurers continue to visit. At the entrance to Tenglong’s lower cave, where the Qing River ventures toward the Yangtze River, local gamblers prepared for a new day, attaching helmets, snake ropes over their shoulders, packing waterproof bags.

Less than two kilometers along the road sits Changyan Farm, a small business with blue and silver corrugated metal roofs that were licensed to raise civets, porcupines and wild boars. The deserted courtyard and the dilapidated house across the road showed no signs of new use. A restaurant and a hotel behind the property were closed and the caretaker refused to discuss the yard.

“The forestry officials came by early around the lunar year [2020], Says a neighbor who would not give his name for fear of official retaliation. “They shut down everything on that farm. I’m not sure what animals they had at the time or what they did to them. ”

Washington Post

Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents about what makes headlines around the world. Sign up for the What in the World newsletter weekly here.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *