China is once again trying to shift the blame for the origins of coronavirus to another country.
A team of scientists has published a paper suggesting SARS-CoV-2 existed on up to four continents before the outbreak in Wuhan at the end of last year.
It comes just as the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced it was finally beginning a long-awaited international investigation into the source of the pandemic that has shut down much of the world for nine months.
The WHO's team of experts believes the original pathogen hopped from an animal to a human, but will now attempt to establish exactly where and how this occurred.
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China does not dispute that the virus was initially detected in humans in Wuhan last December, however it is not its original birthplace.
The heated debate has seen relations between China and the USA sour after President Donald Trump repeatedly blamed the fellow superpower for the "Wuhan flu" and accused the Chinese government of covering up the truth.
Now new research led by Dr Shen Libing of the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences has theorised coronavirus originated in India, not China.
"The Early Cryptic Transmission and Evolution of Sars-CoV-2 in Human Hosts" was posted to the online pre-print platform for medical journal The Lancet on November 17.
The paper delved into information about coronavirus provided by 17 different countries and regions, and traces its origins back to either India or Bangladesh.
The findings have yet to be fully peer-reviewed.
Dr Shen said the traditional phylogenetic analysis approach didn't succeed at locating the first coronavirus strains because it used a bat virus, which wasn't the human virus' ancestor.
Instead his team counted the mutations in each viral strain, surmising that those with fewer mutations are closer to the original ancestor.
They found some strains had even fewer mutations than the first samples from Wuhan, and concluded: "Wuhan cannot be the first place where human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission happened."
The researchers claim the least mutated strain was found in eight countries from four continents: Australia, Bangladesh, Greece, the US, Russia, Italy, India and the Czech Republic.
But the virus couldn't have jumped to humans from all these places at the same time, so the first outbreak must have happened in a region with a lot of genetic diversity — and nowhere is more genetically diverse than India and Bangladesh.
They theorised extreme weather may have triggered the pandemic, pointing to May 2019 when India had its second-longest heatwave on record. This would have meant more humans and animals sharing drinking water sources.
"Both the least mutated strain's geographic information and the strain diversity suggest that the Indian subcontinent might be the place where the earliest human-to-human Sars-CoV-2 transmission occurred," the paper concluded.
But the findings have been criticised by other experts, who have said the incorrect software and research principles were used.
David Robertson from Glasgow University told Mail Online the paper is "very flawed" and said "it adds nothing to our understanding of coronavirus".
Marc Suchard, an expert from the University of California, told the South China Morning Post: "Picking the viral sequence that appears to have the least number of differences to the others in an arbitrary collection is unlikely to yield the progenitor."
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