Fact check: Coronavirus originated in China, not elsewhere, researchers and studies say

Matthew Brown

The claim: The coronavirus originated outside China

A piece published by the Centre for Research on Globalization and circulated on social media claims the virus known as COVID-19 originated outside China. 

That March 11 posting makes references to a March 4 post on the same site by the same author that claims the virus "may have originated in the U.S." Titled “A Shocking Update. Did The Virus Originate in the U.S.?” the earlier post makes several questionable claims about the origins of COVID-19 while misrepresenting cited research and media reports.

The central claim of both the March 4 and 11 posts — that COVID-19 may have been brought to China by the U.S. Army — was recently echoed by a Chinese government official on Twitter. The Chinese official's claims were presented without evidence.

Several of the central statements in the March 4 article misrepresent cited research or make unclear assertions. USA TODAY reached out to Larry Romanoff, author of both posts, for clarification on several of the claims made,  but was unable to reach him for comment.

More:A coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the world, but what exactly is a virus? 

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits a quarantined community in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on March 10.

What researchers say: COVID-19 originated in China

The consensus among researchers studying the spread of the virus pinpoints COVID-19’s likely origin to a “wet market,” or live animal market, in Wuhan, China. Though experts have not ruled out the possibility that the pathogen could have been brought to the market by an already infected person, there is no evidence to suggest COVID-19 originated outside the country.

The origin theory for the virus is supplemented by preliminary research into the disease’s genome, as well as the origins of similar diseases. Researchers at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre published the genome of COVID-19 two weeks after cases were reported in late December 2019. Gene sequencing analysis strongly suggests the virus originated in bats and was transferred to humans through a yet-unidentified intermediary species. In early February, Chinese researchers published work suggesting the intermediary species may have been the pangolin (also called a scaly anteater), though this work has not yet undergone a peer-reviewed study.

More:What does the coronavirus do to your body? 

The conditions for such interspecies pathogen transfer are ripe in wet markets, which are common in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, resulted from a virus transferring from bats to civet cats and then humans. SARS, discovered in 2003, originated at a wet market similar to the one now suspected to be the origin of COVID-19.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is briefed about the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province on March 10.

Other claims and theories about the origins of COVID-19, including that the virus was brought to by the U.S. Army during the Military World Games in October in Wuhan, are unsubstantiated and not supported by research into the virus.

Researchers at ETH Zurich released a study in early March that placed the origins of COVID-19 in November at the earliest. Research published by the Scripps Research Institute in February strongly implies that the virus in humans arose naturally through interspecies transfer, putting its origin in late November or early December 2019. Both studies point to the virus’s origin in Hubei province, China.

Our ruling: False

An article circulating on social media claims COVID-19 did not originate in China. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by research. The consensus among experts researching the virus places the beginning of its spread at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.

Our fact-check sources:

Contributing: Martina Stewart