Wuhan, China“I get a shudder every time I drive past here,” says the taxi driver as he pulls over near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. The wet market—where live poultry and mammals are sold and slaughtered on site—is where most of the early COVID-19 patients worked or visited before they were hospitalized in December 2019. “Huanan has become synonymous to the virus,” he says.
The market has been off limits since January 1, 2020, frozen in time behind high blue walls. Peering through the gap in the gate, I see rows of abandoned stalls under a beige plastic arched roof, an empty blue chair, a fish net, a few cooler boxes, and an overflowing rubbish bin. A red sign advertises Wuchang beam, a signature fish species of the Yangtze River, famed for its tender and aromatic belly. Another sign reads “fresh and live.”
As the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the precise origins of the virus that causes the disease, SARS-CoV-2, and the role of the Huanan market in kickstarting the outbreak remain hotly contested. Most experts agree that COVID-19 emerged because of zoonotic spillover—which happens when a virus jumps from wild animals to humans. But it’s been unclear exactly when and where the virus made that leap. Pinpointing where spillover took place is not just a matter of academic interest. “It has important policy implications” that will help avert risky practices and hopefully prevent the next pandemic, says Roger Frutos, a virologist at the University of Montpellier in France.