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Coronavirus: Claim that COVID-19 was found in Europe last year is highly unlikely, says professor

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A debate is ongoing over whether coronavirus could have been present in Europe prior to the outbreak in Wuhan
A debate is ongoing over whether coronavirus could have been present in Europe prior to the outbreak in Wuhan   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michael Probst
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A professor of infectious diseases has cast doubt on claims traces of coronavirus have been discovered in wastewater around the world collected prior to the outbreak starting in China.

There have been reports of coronavirus being found in samples in Barcelona dating from March 2019, Italy in December, and Brazil in November, but these studies are yet to be peer-reviewed.

Jens Lundgren, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Copenhagen, refuted claims made by another scientist, Dr Tom Jefferson, that coronavirus could have been lying dormant around the world, before being “activated by environmental conditions”.

“Basic epidemiology will inform that there was an epicentre in the Wuhan area and then it spread from there, so I think it’s very unlikely that it’s been lying dormant for years and then suddenly popped up,” Lundgren told Euronews.

“I would want to make sure that theory gets substantiated with evidence because that theory seems far-fetched.”

Jefferson, an honorary senior research fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, made the comments in an interview in the Telegraph newspaper, where he claimed viruses may lie dormant, emerging when conditions are right.

The only example he gave, which is reported in the article, is the case of the Spanish Flu spreading to Western Samoa in 1918, killing “around 30 per cent” of the population.

“They hadn’t had any communication with the outside world,” he claimed, meaning the only explanation could be that the flu was already there and something caused it to emerge.

That something could be “human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should be looking for,” Jefferson added.

There is however a multitude of sources readily available online that say people disembarked from a boat on Western Samoa in 1918, bringing the Spanish Flu with them. One such example is an article on a website published by the government of New Zealand, specifically the Research and Publishing Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

“For this coronavirus, the natural host is apparently these bats (that live in Wuhan),” says Lundgren. Viruses need a host to survive and spread, he insists.

“For influenza, it’s either birds or pigs typically. But it needs to have a host. It can survive for some hours, up to a day or two outside of the host, on surfaces, in the soil, but it isn’t dormant.

“The most logical way of explaining things is the right one. In biology, it is typically what the science has informed us for years which is the right way to go. It is fine to challenge that, but you need to bring evidence rather than speculation.”

On the samples apparently found in Spain, Italy, and Brazil, Lundgren is blunt: “They haven’t found the same virus.”

He explains that scientists have found sections of the same genetic material from a virus in different locations, but this is just “molecular evidence that there is shared genetic material".

He says rather than proving this is the same virus, it “just proves there has been other viruses with overlapping genetic material.” It is also possible there have been laboratory errors, he adds, expecting the debate on this topic to go on for some time.

That the epidemic started in Wuhan, China, is a fact that is “not contested,” Lundgren says.

“It’s implausible that there was a hidden pandemic before it actually started. If that’s the assertion, that’s a pretty wild accusation actually, because it flies in the face of all we know about how this epidemic has evolved.”

For Lundgren, the important things experts need to be researching are how the virus got from bats to humans, whether it is evolving in the bats, and “more importantly,” whether it can happen again.

Dr Jefferson has not responded to Euronews' request to comment on this article.