Where It All Began

A blue sign saying "武汉华南海鲜批发市场" above a gate and parking sign
The Wuhan South China Seafood Market as seen from the street

Three years ago, right about this time, a killer was beginning to kill. We had no idea at the time, but our lives were about to change forever.

Word began to spread on December 31st, 2019. That day, the Municipal Health Commission of Wuhan, China told the World Health Organization (WHO) that a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause had been observed in the city. That cause, of course, would turn out to be the new disease now known as COVID-19. Disease detectives from WHO and other organizations began to trace the contacts of people who had been infected. And their search led them to the one place that nearly all patients had visited:

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market

The map above shows the Huanan Seafood Market (in Chinese, 武汉华南海鲜批发市场, Wǔhàn Huánán Hǎixiān Pīfā Shìchǎng) was a market at 207 Fa Zhan Da Dao in the Jiangshan District in the city of Wuhan, in east-central China. It appears to have been torn down, but this Google Earth historic image shows what it looked like from space in October 2019, right around the time the virus likely arrived there:

The Huanan Seafood Market from space in October 2019 (from Google Earth)

And of course the photo at the top of the post shows what it looks like from the street.

Wuhan is huge – home to 12 million people – nearly twice the population of New York City. And Huanan Seafood Market was the largest market of its kind in the city. It frequently gets described in English-speaking media as a “wet market,” but I don’t actually know what that means, so I’ll just call it a market.

The market sold mostly fish and other seafood, but one section specialized in wild game – what in Chinese is called 野味 (yěwèi), meaning “wild taste.” Wild game can mean just about anything; an old South Chinese saying is that “Chinese people will eat anything with four legs except a table.” Although the wild ancestor of the human SARS-CoV-2 virus has its reservoir in bats, genetic evidence suggests that it passed through another organism before arriving in humans. The most likely culprit is the pangolin, a small, endangered, adorable mammal native to south China, and formerly a popular wild game animal until its consumption was banned in China in mid-2020.

From bats to pangolins to the seafood market to a few unknown humans, the virus began its spread around the world, as I had tracked for quite a long time on this blog (like this just one of tragically many updates).

As the virus spread around the world, so too did false conspiracy rumor about the spread of the virus. One of the most powerful and lasting has been the rumor that the virus was genetically engineered by humans, either as a bioweapon by the Chinese government or escaped in a lab accident. The rumor started in February 2020, spread quickly online and in person by many well-meaning people and… not well-meaning people.

If the mountains of epidemiological and genomic evidence isn’t enough to convince any of the well-meaning people who have shared this rumor, this probably won’t be either. But for what it’s worth…

I recently saw an Internet Opinion Piece asking: how likely is it that the outbreak started at the market rather than at the virology lab LESS THAN ONE MILE AWAY???!!!1!!??

Surely the Internet wouldn’t lie about such an easily verifiable fact, right? lol

From Google Earth: the Wuhan Institute of Virology is 7.5 miles (12 km) away from the Huanan Seafood Market, across the Yangtze River
The distance between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Huanan Seafood Market: 7.5 miles

Conspiracy rumors and false information rely on passive consumers who don’t even bother to check whether what they are reading is true. Always check!

2 thoughts on “Where It All Began

  1. I didn’t know either.

    From Wikipedia: A wet market (also called a public market or a traditional market) is a marketplace selling fresh foods such as meat, fish, produce and other consumption-oriented perishable goods in a non-supermarket setting, as distinguished from “dry markets” that sell durable goods such as fabrics, kitchenwares and electronics.

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