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A Flawed, Strange Covid-19 Origin Theory Is Gaining Traction

In early August 2021, a preprint reported a potentially huge discovery. Researchers had looked at samples that were collected as part of measles and rubella surveillance in Italy. They reported the detection of evidence of Sars-CoV-2 genetic material in the samples of 11 subjects taken before the pandemic—with the earliest case going back as far as late summer 2019. This would mean that the virus was circulating in Italy much earlier than December 8, thought to be the date of the first known case in Wuhan.The findings were potentially game-changing. They would overturn our understanding of how the Covid-19 pandemic came to be, how it spread, and how the virus itself operated. And this is not the first study to propose that Covid-19 was circulating in Italy long before it was ever reported in Wuhan. In fact, there’s been a whole spate of them, and they’ve been widely covered in the media, including Chinese state media. Authorities in China have been pushing these studies as potential evidence that perhaps the pandemic didn’t even originate in Wuhan after all.

In other words—huge if true. There’s just one problem: All of this science could be riddled with mistakes.

To get their data, the researchers amplified tiny amounts of RNA or DNA in a sample. But the approach is highly susceptible to contamination and notorious for generating false positives. In an earlier report from the same lead author, Elisabetta Tanzi, a professor at the University of Milan, she and her colleagues claimed to find evidence of Sars-CoV-2 in a boy in northern Italy who presented with measles symptoms in November 2019. In the paper, Tanzi and her coauthors write that the lab was “designated as free from Sars-CoV-2.” However, the researchers used a sample from a positive patient provided by a local hospital. That means not only that the virus was in the lab, but that it was amplified to make more of it so it could be used as a control to develop the test, says Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. In the later paper, the researchers don’t say they used the same control—but they don’t explain how they got the controls they did use. That means there might have been some virus floating around that they just didn’t know about. “It really does look like a classic false-positive situation,” Worobey says.A timeline offered by the Italian authors also raises big questions. They constructed a mutational tree of the virus—suggesting that the Wuhan outbreak still took place before moving to Italy in October 2019. That means they’re arguing that the virus came from Wuhan to Italy during the summer of 2019. “It doesn't fit anything that we were watching at the time,” says Andrew Rambaut, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s like finding an iPhone in a pharaoh’s tomb,” says Worobey—you either have to rewrite history, or you have to consider the possibility that one of the archaeologists dropped their phone. (Tanzi was contacted for this article but declined to comment until the recent preprint had been published in a journal.) Without details of the controls used and corroboration from another lab, Rambaut isn’t convinced the findings hold up at all. “The burden is on them to demonstrate that these sequences are real.”This early European spread hypothesis has been percolating throughout the pandemic, with a new paper supposedly showing evidence for it cropping up every few months. Every new paper has led to another paper, with all of them sharing a common theme: They are flawed, or rely on unusual methodology, and the majority are placing this early spread in Italy. “People are encouraging each other,” Worobey says. “It’s genuine that people there really are convinced that there was an early outbreak, and they’re going and looking for evidence of it, and perhaps not being very self-critical of the evidence that they’re generating.”