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On the 2nd March, a popular German talk show format – Hart aber Fair which translates to Harsh but Fair – that airs on Germany’s number one television network, the ARD, broadcast an episode concerning the spread of the novel Coronavirus strain SARS-CoV-2 (previously known as 2019-nCoV), the cause of the current Covid-19 outbreak. Among the guests of the show was professor of medical microbiology and virology Alexander Kekulé (link to German Wikipedia page) of the Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg.

At about 1:42 h into the show which can be viewed on Youtube, he makes the following claim about the origin of this strain of Coronavirus:

Menschen haben irgendwelche Tiere im Wald gefangen, ihnen bei lebendigem Leib die Kehle durchgeschnitten und das Blut dann auf ihr Essen tropfen lassen, weil das so Kultur ist.

Translated:

People caught some random animals in the forest, cut open their neck while still alive and let the blood drip on their food, because it’s their culture.

This is quoted in a review of the show published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in which it is presented as unchallenged, factual and one of the many things the audience and other guests learned from Professor Kekulé that evening (paraphrased).

This is the first time I have heard this type of claim on the virus’ origin. It not only seems incredible to be but also some form of orientalism stereotype for which stronger descriptions might be applicable. I want to imagine that I would have at least heard of this alleged cultural practice before. Thus, I ask:

  • Is any cultural practice as described found in central China?

  • Is there any evidence that this chain of events led to the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from wildlife to humans?

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    But SARS is not a bloodborne virus, unlike HIV and hepatitis. It is contagious/infectious so the blood practice in itself isn't relevant. – Weather Vane Mar 3 at 9:31
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    @WeatherVane "We found the presence of 2019-nCoV in anal swabs and blood as well" : tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/22221751.2020.1729071 – DavePhD Mar 3 at 13:42
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    The genome sequence of the new coronavirus is a 96% match for the one found in bats and people do eat bats in China, so it is fairly plausible that eating bats was the initial vector of infection. Anything beyond that should probably be seen as part of the literary work of the people in that talk show. – Tgr Mar 4 at 22:45
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    @Tgr That percentage would mean four times the genetic distance than between humans and chimpanzees (99% match). I suppose, smaller genome and more frequent mutation means that 96% match with a virus still means "extremely close"? – Hagen von Eitzen Mar 8 at 19:16
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    @Tgr Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, though--no check on copy accuracy and thus a much higher mutation rate. Note, also, that a generation in the life of a virus is far shorter than in a human. – Loren Pechtel Mar 9 at 14:31
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This claim has two major points:

  1. SARS-CoV-2 originated in some animal
  2. A blood eating practice is the reason it jumped to humans

SARS-CoV-2 very likely originated in some animal

It is extremely likely COVID-19 originated in some animal that has contact with humans before crossing the "species barrier". In fact, this happens so commonly, it's hardly a point of contention among any scientists.

A related virus to SARS-CoV-2 often takes the name SARS when causing human disease. It's well known that SARS originated in bats and jumped to civets first before infecting humans. Thus, it is currently believed that

The most likely ecological reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2 are bats, but it is believed that the virus jumped the species barrier to humans from another intermediate animal host. This intermediate animal host could be a domestic food animal, a wild animal, or a domesticated wild animal which has not yet been identified.

Bats specifically are implicated in the origination of at least 4 other similar illnesses. This happens often enough that bats, along with birds, are called "reservoir species", meaning, they seem to be like containers of human disease causing pathogens.

"Bats and birds are considered reservoir species for viruses with pandemic potential," Bart Haagmans, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, told Business Insider.

A blood eating practice may be the cause, via live-animal markets

This exact means of disease transfer to humans, dripping blood on food, is very specific. The overall tone of the claim's source is also condescending and a bit xenophobic. Skepticism is warranted. Further, how can anyone possibly know that so early in our study of the situation? They can't know. Who ever is saying such things is speaking too quickly and without authority or source.

What we can do is at least examine if it is possible that eating blood can result in novel infections of a respiratory illness. Eating blood in Asia is somewhat common, but I could not find any instances of raw blood eating for asia and certainly none as graphic as sprinkling it on other food like salt.

Blaming a specific blood eating practice misses the many other ways illnesses spread from animals to humans. The eating of blood itself may or may not be the exact cause (and it's really hard to tell without specific studies), but eating blood without someone exposing themselves to many other aspects of the animal is nearly impossible. The animal has to be trapped or hunted, kept for some time, sold to merchants, butchered, products packaged, then finally delivered to the consumer. All along the way the animal's flesh, blood, breath, saliva, feces, hair, etc. are in human contact. The inhalation or ingestion (whether intentional or not) of any of these can be the cause1.

Some suspicion has fallen on the peculiar pangolin, but regardless of the exact animal, the thrust of the claim is the eating of "strange" meats, by Western standards, is the cause. Both bats and pangolins are eaten in Wuhan. And this is not without merit, both generically speaking and for SARS-CoV-2 specifically:

Dozens of people infected early in the current outbreak worked in a live-animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but tests of coronavirus samples found at the market have yet to identify a source.

This food market scenario is exactly where numerous scientists first cast suspicion, merely because of the human contact, and secondarily if certain markets are known for mixing live animals, crowds, and exist in low regulatory environments, all of which exist in the Wuhan area. Specific practices like blood eating are tertiary concerns.

The coronavirus spreading in China and the SARS outbreak of 2003 have two things in common: Both are from the coronavirus family and both were likely passed from animals to humans in a wet market [a market offering live animals].

"Poorly regulated live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade offer a unique opportunity for viruses to spill over from wildlife hosts into the human population," the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement.

"If one of these viruses [found in bats, etc] gets into a wildlife market where the chance of one animal infecting multiple people is much higher, that's where the risk is highest," said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, in the journal The Scientist. His U.S.-based nonprofit organization has been studying the origins of viruses in China for 15 years.

He suspects that the source is the Chinese horseshoe bat, a common species named for the pointy horseshoe-shaped protuberance on its nose. China has a long tradition of eating wildlife, especially in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi.

And our ever excelling growth and delivery speeds are likely making it worse.

With growing human populations increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, with unprecedented changes in land use, with wildlife and livestock transported across countries and their products around the world, and with a sharp increase in both domestic and international travel, new disease outbreaks of pandemic scale are a near mathematical certainty.

The overall human contact is the suspect, not usually any individual practice related to that contact. Further, to addresses the claim's condescending tone, this same contact happens with other disease reservoirs that are more palatable to the Western tongue, such as pigs and chickens, which are flu virus carriers. That this is a problem exclusively of culture rather than inherent in animal hunting and husbandry is ignorant at best. The claim's source should consider this fact the next time their neighbor puts a chicken coop 20 feet from their suburban house and offers to share the eggs.

Food safety regulations exist for a reason, and SARS-CoV-2 is only one. The only cultural aspects of this outbreak is that WHO and other international bodies should stress that countries with lax cleanliness regulations do better on that front and support grassroots movements to that end.


Footnote

  1. I even remember reading an old article about the African bush meat trade. The author followed around a local hunter, and noted that a baboon's blood dripped down the man's leg as he hauled it to market, which his shins were being thrashed by high grass and thorns, thereby exposing baboon blood to the hunter's blood.
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    Even in the unlikely event that the disease was passed by eating blood specifically, what Prof. Kekule claimed would still likely not be correct, since he refers to direct transfer of liquid blood from an animal being slaughtered onto food. This answer contains the correct conclusion: that Kekule's claim is baseless, offensive, and far-fetched, but maybe it could be more clearly foregrounded. – Colin Mar 17 at 7:31
  • @Colin Exactly. I couldn't find anything for raw blood eating in Asia. I'm sure someone's done it before, but I very much doubt it's any kind of common practice. – fredsbend Mar 17 at 19:27
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    The “raw blood” stuff is utter nonsense. This is on the mark 1,000% “Food safety regulations exist for a reason…” This is not an Asian or Chinese specific issue. If the U.S. still had lax food regulations as seen in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” then we might have — for argument’s sake — the “Illinois Flu” going around. Thank you for this excellent answer! – Giacomo1968 Mar 23 at 4:12
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    Huh, a downvote. Maybe I'll see a competing answer soon. – fredsbend Mar 29 at 4:24
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    "Eating blood in Asia is somewhat common" eating blood is almost universal in cultures with sedentary animal husbandry. It just makes sense to make use of as much of the animal as possible including its blood. It's only quite recently that blood has started to be considered distasteful in much of Europe as the price of meat has dropped (the non-native population of the Americas has pretty much always had meat in pretty good supply so it's not surprising Americans tend to have an even stronger aversion than Europeans) – Tristan Jun 9 at 13:51

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