First Known Covid Case Was Vendor at Wuhan Market, Scientist Claims

By the spring of 2020, senior members of the Trump administration were promoting another scenario for the origin of the pandemic: that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has a campus roughly eight miles away from the Huanan market, across the Yangtze River.

In January of this year, researchers chosen by the W.H.O. visited China and interviewed an accountant who had reportedly developed symptoms on Dec. 8. Their influential March 2021 report described him as the first known case.

But Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist at EcoHealth Alliance who was part of the W.H.O. team, said that he was convinced by Dr. Worobey’s analysis that they had been wrong.

“That December the eighth date was a mistake,” Dr. Daszak said.

The W.H.O. team never asked the accountant the date his symptoms began, he said. Instead, they were given the Dec. 8 date by doctors from Hubei Xinhua Hospital, who handled other early cases but did not care for Mr. Chen. “So the mistake lies there,” Dr. Daszak said.

For the W.H.O. experts, Dr. Daszak said, the interview was a dead end: The accountant had no apparent links to an animal market, lab or a mass gathering. He told them he liked spending time on the internet and jogging, and he did not travel much. “He was as vanilla as you could get,” Dr. Daszak said.

Had the team identified the seafood vendor as the first known case, Dr. Daszak said, it would have more aggressively pursued questions like what stall she worked in and where her products came from.

This year, Dr. Daszak has been one of the strongest critics of the lab-leak theory. He and his organization, EcoHealth Alliance, have taken heat for research collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Last month, the National Institutes of Health said EcoHealth was in breach of the terms and conditions of its grant for research on coronaviruses in bats.

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