Peter Daszak of the investigative team sent to Wuhan says the farms were probably where the coronavirus first jumped from bats to another animal before infecting humans.



One of the big mysteries around this COVID-19 pandemic is how it all got started. Scientists agree the virus came from a bat. But how did a bat virus make its way into people? The World Health Organization recently sent a team to China to investigate this very question. Its report will be released soon. One scientist offered NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff a glimpse of what they figured out.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: For about 20 years now, the Chinese government has been promoting a unique project in the southern part of the country - taking wild animals trafficked illegally and farming them in captivity. Peter Daszak is a disease ecologist at the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. He says the farms included exotic animals like pangolins, civet cats and bamboo rats.

PETER DASZAK: These are big, fat rats that people eat. They breed very easily. You feed them bamboo. You put them in a concrete bunker, and they breed. And you sell them, and you make a lot of money.

DOUCLEFF: Daszak was part of WHO's recent mission to China. He says the government promoted the farms for one big reason.

DASZAK: To alleviate rural populations out of poverty.

DOUCLEFF: To give people jobs. And the scheme worked.

DASZAK: It was very successful. In 2016, they had 14 million people employed in wildlife farms. It was $77 billion of U.S. dollars of industry.

DOUCLEFF: Then on February 24 last year, right when the outbreak in Wuhan was winding down, the Chinese government made a complete about-face.

DASZAK: The Chinese government put out a declaration - we're going to stop the farming of wildlife for food.

DOUCLEFF: They shut down the farms.

DASZAK: They sent out instructions to the farmers of how to safely dispose of the animals.

DOUCLEFF: Why would the government do this? Daszak thinks because those farms may be where the pandemic began, the spot where the coronavirus jumped from a bat into another animal and then into people.

DASZAK: I do think that SARS-CoV-2 first got into people in South China. It's looking that way.

DOUCLEFF: Here's why. First, he says, many farms are located in a province called Yunnan, where scientists found a bat virus that's 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Second, the farms breed animals that are known to carry coronaviruses, such as civet cats. Finally, during WHO's mission to China, Daszak said the team found new evidence that animals from these farms were being sold at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where an early outbreak of COVID occurred.

LINFA WANG: There was a massive transmission going on at that market for sure.

DOUCLEFF: That's Linfa Wang. He's a virologist in Singapore with the Duke Global Health Institute. He is also part of the WHO's team investigating the origin of the pandemic. Wang says, after the outbreak at the Huanan market, Chinese scientists went there and looked for the virus in the stalls selling live animals.

WANG: In the live animal section, they got lots of positive samples. They even have two samples they were able to isolate live virus.

DOUCLEFF: And so Daszak and others on the WHO team believe that the coronavirus most likely came to the market from the wildlife farms in southern China.

DASZAK: And China closes that down for a reason. And the reason was back in February 2020, they believe this was the most likely pathway. And when the WHO report comes out, we believe it's the most likely pathway.

DOUCLEFF: And so, Daszak says, the next step is to figure out specifically which animal carries the virus and on which farm.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "GOODBYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.