Covid-19 report based on China samples puts suspicion back on raccoon dog origins

NEW YORK – A new analysis of samples taken from a market in Wuhan, China during the early days of the pandemic are the strongest evidence yet that the Covid-19 virus jumped from animals to humans, some researchers say. 

The samples found evidence of the presence of the novel coronavirus along with genetic material from multiple animals – including raccoon dogs, which are susceptible to the disease – according to a report published on Monday on the open science website, which builds a case for the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market as the epicentre of the pandemic.

In some samples there was more animal genetic material than human genetic material indicating possible Sars-CoV-2 infections in animals, the report says. Like many studies released quickly during the pandemic, it has not yet undergone review by the scientific community. 

Those involved worked to finish the report after early findings garnered intense interest and a flurry of media coverage last week. The World Health Organisation has called on China to fully share the genetic data the researchers analysed, which appeared briefly in a public database before being taken down on March 11. The raw data have still not been made available. 

For some outside experts, the situation has sparked concerns. 

“I worry a lot about our jumping on tidbits that are incomplete and cannot be verified,” said Dr David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. “I think we need to take a deep breath and insist on the kind of process and science that any important issue, especially this one deserves.”

He said this is true on both sides of the debate over Covid-19’s origins and has long advocated for both theories – a laboratory accident or natural spillover – to be investigated with equal rigour.

The report is the latest chapter in a fraught search for answers about how the pandemic began.

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed into law a Bill to declassify intelligence on the origins of Covid-19. The US intelligence community remains split in its findings, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Energy concluding that the virus likely came from a lab accident. 

The latest report further complicates the picture. 

“These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last Friday in a press conference, “but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer.”

The scientists generated their report after samples uploaded by Chinese scientists briefly appeared in the open-access genomics database GISAID.

Dr Florence Debarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, fortuitously spotted the data on March 4 and reached out to an international group of scientists who have authored papers supporting the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated at the Huanan Market. The scientists had been hunting for what they’ve called “invaluable” sequencing data for more than a year. 

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to identify a genetic fingerprint of the virus and a potential intermediate host in the exact same place,” Dr Stephen Goldstein, a University of Utah virologist who contributed to the analysis and is an author of the report, said in an interview. “It’s completely consistent and expected from what you’d see in a zoonotic spillover event.”


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