On February 22, the Danish daily Politiken ran an article suggesting a market in Bangkok, Thailand, might have been the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 2 million worldwide.
Most experts believe that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. originated in bats and was passed on to another animal, from which it then spread to people. The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China.
The Politiken article, headlined: “Animal market in Bangkok could be the place that brought corona to Wuhan,” cited Thea Kølsen Fischer, a professor of virus epidemics at the University of Copenhagen.
Fischer was also on the recent World Health Organization fact-finding mission to investigate the source of the COVID-19 outbreak. (COVID-19 is the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants.)
The Danish article quoted Fischer as saying she considered it “highly likely” the coronavirus came to Wuhan through infected animals sold in markets exactly like Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market, which is among the world’s largest and has sections that sell wild animals, both as pets and for food.
“It is precisely such a market as Chatuchak that we look at with fear, because blood, feces, saliva, fur, and all sorts of other material that may contain viruses come into contact with many other animals and humans,” Politiken quoted Fischer as saying.
Denmark’s government-owned TV 2 also quoted Fischer naming Thailand as the possible place of origin for the outbreak.
“We have found out that the virus probably originated from the horseshoe bat. This type of bat is found both in southeastern China, but it is also found in other countries such as Cambodia and Thailand,” the channel quoted Fischer as saying.
According to TV 2, she also said: “Another possibility is that a human being has been infected at a market in Thailand and then subsequently traveled to Wuhan.”
Fischer subsequently said on Twitter that she had been “not quite correctly quoted.” She wrote that “we only point to recent findings from … Thailand where horseshoe bats have also been shown to host viruses with high resemblance to SARS-CoV-2.”
The idea that the pandemic originated in Thailand is unsubstantiated but probably an easy leap from Fischer’s somewhat ambiguous remarks. To date, nobody has produced evidence linking a Thai market to the initial outbreak.
Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation told the Bangkok Post on February 24 it had had conducted tests on various types of wildlife sold at Chatuchak Market, “both imported and local,” and had not found any animals infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Politiken’s editor-in-chief, Christian Jensen, also told Polygraph.info its article did not categorically state Chatuchak Market was the source.
“The story is correct, and it doesn’t state as a fact that the coronavirus originated exactly from the Chatuchak Market,” Jensen said. “It mentions the market as an example of the problematic ones, but it is clearly mentioned several times that you cannot pinpoint that exact market as the one from which corona was spread.”
Jensen noted that the article called Chatuchak Market “by far the largest animal market in Southeast Asia” but not the only one.
“[T]here are numerous smaller markets, some of which — as opposed to Chatuchak — also sell bats and slaughtered animals, which means that the virus could also easily have spread from one of those markets,” Politiken reported.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation responded to a February 10 report by the Russian-state broadcaster Sputnik, which said there are bats in Thailand with a new coronavirus — RacCS203 — similar to SARS-CoV-2.
RacCS203 was found in the blood of five out of 100 sampled horseshoe bats living in an artificial cave in a wildlife sanctuary in eastern Thailand.
While the Sputnik article cited the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, the latter did not conclude that Thailand was the source of the novel coronavirus.
“Although the origin of the virus remains unresolved, our study extended the geographic distribution of genetically diverse SC2r-CoVs from Japan and China to Thailand over a 4800-km range,” Nature Communications said.
Thailand’s Chulalongkorn and Kasetsart universities, along with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, were integral to Nature Communications’ study.
Citing those researchers, the government said that while the newly discovered coronavirus shares 91.5% of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code, it could not be transmitted to humans, the Bangkok Post reported.
Chawetsan Namwat, director of the Thai Department of Disease Control’s emergency disease and health hazards control division, concurred.
While the first known cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Wuhan, the original source of viral transmission to humans is unknown.
Last year, Chinese media played up claims that the novel coronavirus may have been imported from abroad, even at one point blaming a United States military biolab. (Those assertions have been disputed and debunked.)
In November 2020, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese CDC, released a statement claiming “more and more evidence shows that frozen seafood or meat products can bring viruses from outbreak countries into China.”
Members of the WHO investigative team who returned from China earlier this month have at times seemed to accept narratives being pushed by China’s government.
Peter Ben Embarek, the food scientist who led the WHO team, told journalists the virus could have been transmitted on food packaging. Following pushback from other team members and international experts, however, Embarek said any such transmission would be a “very, very rare event.”
Embarek has also appeared to walk back comments suggesting COVID-19 was not widely circulating in Wuhan prior to December 2019.
Although a large number of early human-to-human novel coronavirus transmissions were traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, some researchers expressed doubt that the virus originated there, as tissue samples from animals there showed no trace.
However, the WHO reported last November 5 that 69 out of 842 environmental samples – 61 of which came from the western wing of the market – tested positive for the virus. Twenty-two of those samples came from eight different drains and sewage.
On February 12, The New York Times ran an article, “On WHO Trip, China Refused to Hand Over Important Data,” covering the WHO team’s month-long visit.
According to the Times, WHO investigators said that Chinese scientists refused to share raw data on the initial coronavirus outbreak, and that Beijing’s unwillingness to release information was hindering efforts to prevent future outbreaks. The information included blood sample data that could potentially clarify how widely the virus circulated in China in 2019.
Fischer also claimed the Times article intentionally “twisted” her words and those of other team members, “casting shadows over important scientific work.”
A Times spokesperson told Polygraph.info that editors had reviewed those concerns “and concluded that the scientists were quoted fairly and accurately.”