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Department of Spatial Planning

Quotation in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ)

Logo of the FAZ newspaper © Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

It is still unclear where COVID-19 originated before it became a global pandemic. A common hypothesis is that the Huanan wet market in Wuhan, China, is one such potential location. In a recent study published in Science, this hypothesis was analysed using spatial statistical methods. Although the authors point out some limitations of their approach, they imply in their title and in their conclusions that they have identified the Huanan wetland market as the origin of the pandemic. In a critique published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society – Part A, Dietrich Stoyan (TU Bergakademie Freiberg) and Sung Nok Chiu (Hong Kong Baptist University) criticise both the methodological approach and the causality implied in some statements. The authors criticise the way in which the hypothesis tests were conducted and how the authors of the Science study seem to ignore the fact that their results would also suggest a number of other nearby locations as potential early outbreak sites. Another point of criticism is the confusion between causality and correlation, which is still a widespread issue in empirical research. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), one of the most reputable newspapers in Germany and Europe, has reported on this case and asked René Westerholt for an independent assessment of the methodological dispute. The assessment agrees with Stoyan and Chiu and expands their criticism to include geographical and communicative aspects. The points highlighted show how important it is to communicate research responsibly, especially in the context of societally pressing issues such as COVID-19. The FAZ article including the quote was published on Sunday, 28 January 2024, and can also be found online (behind a paywall):