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Research shows coronavirus pandemic originated in Wuhan wet market and did not escape from a Chinese lab

By Ciara Linnane

Austria to end quarantine for the COVID-positive without symptoms, and German life expectancy dented by pandemic

Research published Tuesday by the journal Science offers more evidence that the coronavirus pandemic that has caused the deaths of more than 6 million people globally originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, and not from a Chinese lab.

Two new studies concluded that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2, passed to humans from animals.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was identified as a likely source of cases in early reports, but later this conclusion became controversial, the authors wrote.

"We show the earliest known COVID-19 cases from December 2019, including those without reported direct links, were geographically centered on this market," said the report. "We report that live SARS-CoV-2 susceptible mammals were sold at the market in late 2019 and, within the market, SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental samples were spatially associated with vendors selling live mammals. "

While the exact circumstances "remain obscure, " analyses show that the virus spread from the live-wildlife trade in China and that the market was indeed the epicenter of the pandemic, they wrote.

The news comes at a time when U.S. COVID cases are hovering close to 130,000 a day, the highest level seen since February, as the BA.5 omicron subvariant continues to spread. BA.5 is understood to be the most transmissible variant so far and to have an ability to break through vaccination and cause reinfection.

The daily average for new U.S. cases stood at 128,496 on Tuesday, according to a New York Times tracker, down 2% from two weeks ago. The true case count is likely higher, given the number of people who are testing at home and from whom data are not being collected.

The daily average for hospitalizations rose to 43,433, up 12% in two weeks. The daily average for deaths is up 10% to 433. Cases are higher in California than they've been in six months, while in New York there are more patients in hospitals than at the peak of last year's delta-variant wave.

There was positive news from Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech (BNTX), however, when they said early Wednesday they have started a Phase 2 study to evaluate an enhanced COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the original strain of the virus and the omicron variant that seeks to create a more robust and longer-lasting immune response.

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The new bivalent vaccine called BNT162b5 will be tested in a randomized, active-controlled, observer-blind Phase 2 study to evaluate safety, tolerability and immune response. The study will be U.S.-based and involve about 200 participants aged 18 to 55, who have received one booster dose of a U.S.-authorized vaccine at least 90 days prior to their first study visit. The study will not include a placebo.

"This is the first of multiple vaccine candidates with an enhanced design which the companies plan to evaluate as part of a long-term scientific COVID-19 vaccine strategy to potentially generate more robust, longer-lasting, and broader immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 infections and associated COVID-19," the companies said in a joint statement.

The move comes a day after a White House event on next-gen vaccines. Health experts agree that the next generation of vaccines need to offer greater protection against infection, and not just severe disease and death.

Coronavirus Update: MarketWatch's daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

-- Austria is ending COVID quarantine for patients who are infected but don't show symptoms, the Associated Press reported. The new regulations will apply next month. However, infected people still need to wear masks if they leave their homes unless they are outside or can keep a distance of at least 2 meters (or 6 feet) from others. They are also not allowed to enter places catering to especially vulnerable people such as hospitals, nursing homes or facilities for the disabled.

-- German life expectancy fell noticeably between 2019 and 2021, covering the peak pandemic years, the AP reported separately. The Federal Statistical Office said that life expectancy for newborn girls last year was 83.2 years and for boys 78.2 years. That was a decrease of 0.4 and 0.6 years, respectively, compared with 2019, the last year before the pandemic. "The main reason for this development is unusually high death figures during the COVID-19 waves," the office said in a statement.

-- New Zealand's government said Wednesday that new COVID cases are starting to trend downward and that the country would likely avoid a feared worst-case-scenario of 20,000 daily infections, Channel News Asia reported In the last seven days there were on average 8,111 new cases daily of COVID-19, down from a seven-day rolling average of 9,367 new cases in the week prior, according to Health Ministry data released on Wednesday. Currently 808 people were in hospital with COVID-19, which was also a lower number than earlier, data showed.

-- China has approved the use of a HIV drug developed by Genuine Biotech as a treatment for certain adult patients with COVID, Reuters reported. The Azvudine tablet, which China approved in July last year to treat certain HIV-1 virus infections, has been given a conditional green light to treat adult patients with "normal type" COVID, the National Medical Products Administration said in a statement. "Normal type" COVID is a term China uses to refer to coronavirus infections where there are signs of pneumonia, but the patients haven't reached a severe stage.

Here's what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 573.1 million on Tuesday, while the death toll rose above 6.39 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 90.8 million cases and 1,028,139 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's tracker shows that 222.9 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 67.2% of the total population. But just 107.5 million have had a booster, equal to 48.2% of the vaccinated population, and just 19 million of the people 50 years old and over who are eligible for a second booster have had one, equal to 29.7% of those who had a first booster.

-Ciara Linnane

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

07-28-22 0740ET

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