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Arizona-led team pinpoints source of COVID-19 at China market

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A team led by a University of Arizona scientist has traced the source of the COVID-19 virus to a wildlife market in China. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on the research, published this week in Science.

The team mapped early cases of the disease and found a single market in Wuhan at the epicenter… specifically, an area that sold racoon dogs, foxes, and other wildlife. Samples taken by Chinese scientists found the virus on floors and animal cages in the area.

Spillover of viruses from animals to humans is not unusual. Lead author Michael Worobey says the conditions were right for the rapid spread of COVID-19. "You really need a big city for a virus like this—not just the market, but then the rest of the big city—for it to take hold and become a pandemic," he says.

The scientists say the data make other scenarios, such as a lab leak, unlikely. Kristian Anderson of Scripps Research in California is a coauthor. "Importantly, what we’re trying to understand here is the origin of the pandemic," he says. "We’re not trying to place blame for a pandemic, which would be ludicrous. Pandemics are not something that requires placing blame, it requires understanding."

Related research concluded the virus successfully jumped from animals to humans at least twice around November of 2019. It’s not yet known which animals harbored the virus, or their origins.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.