A virus 96 per cent identical to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was found in an abandoned mine in China seven years ago, according to an investigation.
The bat-infested copper mine in Mojiang, western China, was home to a coronavirus that left six adult men sick with pneumonia and three of them dead.
Scientists took samples from the bats’ faeces, found on the cave floor, and stored them in a laboratory 1,000 miles away in Wuhan for years while studying them.
And last December, Wuhan became the source of a global coronavirus pandemic which has now infected more than 11million people and killed 525,000.
That virus, named RaBtCoV/4991 at the time, now appears to be the closest relative to SARS-Cov-2, which is causing Covid-19, a Sunday Times investigation has found.
But Chinese researchers do not seem to have been forthcoming about the fact they found such a similar virus almost a decade ago in 2012, and especially not that it killed three men when it was discovered.
The virus has reportedly featured in only one widely-available scientific paper and that didn’t mention the fact it had caused fatal pneumonia in humans.
The discovery that something very similar to Covid-19 was circulating in bats in Mojiang – half of bats tested in the mine were carrying at least one type of coronavirus – has raised doubts about the true source of SARS-CoV-2.
The official story has been that the Covid-19 virus jumped from an animal – thought to be a pangolin – to humans at Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan city.
From there it spread throughout the population in the densely-populated city, which is a transport hub, and then onto trains and planes and around the world within weeks.
But it could have been spreading elsewhere first, and even Chinese authorities have since admitted that the market was a ‘victim’ of the epidemic rather than its source.
Dr Peter Daszak, a British animal disease expert, told The Sunday Times: ‘It didn’t emerge in the market, it emerged somewhere else.’
He suggested it was already spreading somewhere around the mine in rural Mojiang and then broke out in Wuhan, which has a population of 11million people.
‘Fair assumption is that it spilt into animals in southern China and was then shipped in, via infected people, or animals associated with trade, to Wuhan.’
The RaBtCoV/4991 virus appears to have caused an illness which sounds extremely similar to Covid-19, and has a genetic code 96.2 per cent matching with it.
The six men who fell ill with the virus in 2012 did so after being assigned to the mine to clear out the bat faeces – it is not clear exactly how it infected them.
But the men, who ranged in age from 30 and 63, all required intensive care treatment in hospital.
All had high fevers, body aches and coughs, and five of them were struggling to breathe.
All are symptoms that match those of Covid-19, and they tested negative for all the tropical diseases the doctors could think of, but two of them later tested positive in blood samples for having been infected with SARS or a SARS-like coronavirus.
The theory is the latest in a long line suggesting the possible origin of the Covid-19 virus, many of which lead back to wild bats in China.
It’s now widely accepted that the virus first began in bats, then infected another animal – such as a pangolin or a snake – and mutated into something that could be passed on to humans.
The Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention has now judged that the market in Wuhan was a ‘victim’ of coronavirus rather than the source of it.
A study of the animals being sold there rules the theory out, they said, after all samples of the animals in the market tested negative for Covid-19, meaning they could not have infected shoppers.
‘It now turns out that the market is one of the victims,’ Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese CDC, told Chinese state media in a radio interview in May.
Colin Carlson, a zoologist at Georgetown University, said the outbreak of coronavirus being linked to the wet market was likely the site of a ‘super-spreader’ event, where one person spread the virus to many other people.
The revelation is likely to heighten speculation that the virus leaked from a Chinese research laboratory, including from US president Donald Trump, who said he’d seen evidence to prove it started in a virology lab.
However, both US and Chinese researchers say there is no evidence to support this theory.
A majority of the original 41 cases of COVID-19 reported to the World Health Organisation in December were linked to the 116-acre market in Wuhan.
This led to the wet market being shut down on January 1. The majority of its 3,600 shops had reopened by April 14, according to reports.
However, scientists at Harvard, MIT and the University of British Columbia examined four samples from the seafood market and found that traces of the virus were ‘99.9 per cent’ identical to those taken from a Wuhan patient.
This suggests the virus detected in the samples came from infected visitors or vendors, indicating ‘Sars-CoV-2 had been imported into the market by humans’.
‘The publicly available genetic data does not point to cross-species transmission of the virus at the market,’ said Alina Chan, a molecular biologist, and Shing Zhan, an evolutionary biologist, who were involved in the study.
Gao Fu appeared to contradict these findings – and the statement he has now made about the market not being responsible for the outbreak – in January in an interview for Chinese state television.
He said the virus had not just been found in people’s bodies but on wild-meat stalls – prompting him to call for an end to the consumption of wild animals.
The study reinforces research published by a team of Chinese researchers in January, which showed the first person confirmed to have coronavirus was likely exposed as early as December 1 – showing symptoms on December 8.
The ‘patient zero’ – the first person to actually contract COVID-19 in Wuhan – has not been confirmed but authorities believe it may have been a 55-year-old man from Hubei province infected on November 17.
This suggests the virus was spreading undetected in the human population around Wuhan for weeks before the ‘super spreader event’ at the market.
‘The novel coronavirus overturns much of what people have known and many of its patterns are beyond our cognition,’ said George Gao Fu of the Chinese CDC.