The coronavirus outbreak may not have originated in China and instead lay dormant around the globe waiting for the right conditions to activate, a university expert has suggested.
Rather than the city of Wuhan being the centre for Covid-19, the disease might have been lying in wait in several countries around the world.
Early research has shown that the virus thrives in temperatures of 4°C found in sewers and meat factories, said Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University.
He believes that there is evidence that Covid-19 appeared earlier last year in Europe and South America.
Spanish virologists said last week that they had found traces in waste water samples gathered in March 2019, scientists in Brazil found traces in November and evidence of coronavirus was discovered in northern Italy in December.
“I think the virus was already here, here meaning everywhere,” Dr Jefferson told The Telegraph. “We may be seeing a dormant virus that has been activated by environmental conditions.”
He added: “There was a case in the Falkland Islands in early February. Now where did that come from? There was a cruise ship that went from South Georgia to Buenos Aires, and the passengers were screened and then on day eight, when they started sailing towards the Weddell Sea they got the first case. Was it in prepared food that was defrosted and activated?
“Strange things like this happened with Spanish Flu. In 1918 around 30 per cent of the population of Western Samoa died of Spanish Flu, and they hadn’t had any communication with the outside world.”
However, other reports have emerged that the virus may have first developed in a cave full of bats in China in 2013. The Sunday Times reported that toxic samples, which killed three people, were taken for examination at the biosafety lab in Wuhan.
Dr Jefferson said Covid-19 could be transmitted through sewage or shared lavatories not just through droplets from coughing.
With outbreaks at meat factories it could also spread where food is prepared at a certain temperature. Last month Germany had a severe outbreak of Covid-19 when 1,300 workers tested positive at a major meat production centre that operated at 4°C. It is possible the virus spread because people failed to wash their hands correctly, Dr Jefferson said.
He suggested that environmental conditions or the human population could potentially provide the right circumstances to activate the virus. He urged the authorities tried to carry out an investigation to track down precisely how, where and when Covid-19 came into being.
“These outbreaks need to be investigated properly with people on the ground, one by one,” he said. “You question people and you start constructing hypotheses that fit the facts, not the other way around.”