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Journal article Open Access

Wrong Side of the Yangtze River: Did a Map Mistake by the World Health Organization Contribute to Premature Conclusions About SARS2's Origin?

Chang, Whatsin Wu

Did a map mistake about the location of the first published COVID-19 patient contribute to pre-mature conclusions about where SARS2–the virus that causes COVID-19–came from? This report explores that question.

The World Health Organization recently acknowledged that the report it convened to study the origin of SARS2 featured several “unintended errors” about early COVID-19 patients. The errors include where the first published SARS2 patient lived at the time of diagnosis, and this error is apparent in the report’s maps. Subsequent to the error in that report, other researchers appear to have repeated the error in their maps and corresponding analysis.

This raises an intriguing question: did a map mistake in a report published by the World Health Organization cause the authors of that report and other researchers to draw premature conclusionsabout the origins of SARS-CoV-2?

A specific example of where a premature conclusion appears to have been drawn by researchers who used the erroneous data that appeared in World Health Organization maps is this statement in The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review, Holmes et al (2021):

“Examination of the locations of early cases shows that most cluster around the Huanan market, located north of the Yangtze river (Fig. 1a-e)... There is no epidemiological link to any other locality in Wuhan...

The analysis in the current study proceeds by first providing context about the ongoing debate about the origin of SARS2.  That is followed by an analysis of maps from the World Health Organization’s report on the origin of SARS2, as well as publicly available information and investigative reporting by Washington Post reporters about the location and characteristics of the first published COVID-19 patient. This study then reviews a series of heatmaps of COVID-19 infections in Wuhan, where  each  map  uses  a  different  methodology  but  all  show  a  similar  pattern  for  the  progression of COVID-19 through Wuhan’s districts, consistently showing that Wuchang district--not the district where the Huanan seafood market is located--was hottest with COVID-19 infections earliest.  Finally, this report explores whether erroneous mapping of the first COVID-19 case contributed to premature conclusions about the origin of SARS2 and concludes by discussing research and public policy implications.

Correction of errors and additional contributions welcome.
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