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Why China and the WHO Will Never Find a Zoonotic Origin for the COVID-19 Pandemic Virus

In China there is a popular joke about the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton). A visiting space alien, curious to learn about Chinese customs, tours its various provinces. Arriving in Guangzhou the alien asks the locals what their interests are. The Cantonese oblige their guest by putting the alien in a soup pot and eating it. This joke hinges on the Cantonese fondness for cooking with unusual species, many obtained from far away.

This feature of Canton’s cuisine was implicated in the original SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic of 2002-04, which began in Guangzhou. It is thought that the virus arrived there with palm civets imported for speciality dishes (Wang et al., 2005).

But this culinary connection also marks a defining difference between the first SARS coronavirus pandemic and the current one. The COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic began in Wuhan, but Wuhan was considered a comparatively unlikely location for a natural (zoonotic) coronavirus spillover (Yu et al., 2019). 

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