Virus may have been here just waiting to be ‘ignited’
By Sarah Knapton SCIENCE EDITOR
CORONAVIRUS may have lain dormant across the world and emerged when environmental conditions were right for it to thrive – rather than starting in China, an Oxford University expert believes.
Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at Oxford, and visiting professor at Newcastle University, says there is growing evidence the virus was elsewhere before it emerged in Asia.
Last week, Spanish virologists announced they had found traces of Covid-19 in samples of waste water collected in March 2019, nine months before the disease was seen in China. Italian scientists have also found evidence of the virus in sewage samples in Milan and Turin, from mid-December, many weeks before the first case was detected, while experts have found traces in Brazil from November.
Dr Jefferson believes that many viruses lie dormant throughout the globe and emerge when conditions are favourable. It also means they can vanish as quickly as they arrive.
“Where did SARS-1 go? It’s just disappeared,” he said. “So we have to think about these things. We need to start researching the ecology of the virus, understanding how it originates and mutates. We may be seeing a dormant virus that has been activated by environmental conditions. There was a case in the Falkland Islands in early February. Now, where did that come from?‘The explanation could only be that these agents don’t come or go anywhere. They are always here’
“There was a cruise ship that went from South Georgia to Buenos Aires and the passengers were screened and then on day eight … they got the first case. Was it in prepared food that was defrosted and activated?
“Strange things like this happened with Spanish Flu. In 1918, around 30 per cent of the population of Western Samoa died of Spanish Flu and they hadn’t had any communication with the outside world.
“The explanation could only be that these agents don’t come or go anywhere. They are always here and something ignites them, maybe human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should look for.” Dr Jefferson believes that the virus may be transmitted through the sewerage system or shared lavatory facilities, not just through droplets expelled by talking, coughing and sneezing.
Dr Jefferson and Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the CEBM, have called for an in-depth investigation similar to that carried out by John Snow in 1854, which showed cholera was spreading in London from an infected well in Soho.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the latest coronavirus news and advice delivered to your in-box every day
Exploring why so many outbreaks happen at food factories and meat-packing plants could uncover major new transmission routes, they believe. It may be shared lavatory facilities coupled with cool conditions that allow the virus to thrive. “We’re doing a living review, extracting environmental conditions, the ecology of these viruses which has been grossly understudied,” said Dr Jefferson.
“There is quite a lot of evidence of huge amounts of the virus in sewage all over the place, and an increasing amount of evidence there is faecal transmission. There is a high concentration where sewage is four degrees, which is the ideal temperature for it to be stabled and presumably activated. And meatpacking plants are often at four degrees.
“These meat packing clusters and isolated outbreaks don’t fit with respiratory theory, they fit with people who haven’t washed their hands properly.
“These outbreaks need to be investigated properly. You question people, and you construct hypotheses that fit the facts, not the other way around.”