Raccoon dogs have been linked to the origins of COVID in a new study suggesting the pandemic may have emanated from animals and not a laboratory leak.
International scientists identified the dogs’ DNA mixed with the virus from genetic material collected at a market near where the first human cases were detected in China in late 2019.
Samples were taken in early 2020 from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan and the genetic sequences were recently uploaded by China to the world’s largest public virus database.
The sequences were then removed but not before a French biologist spotted the information by chance and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China, who were looking into the coronavirus’ origins.
Data showed some samples, which were known to be positive for the coronavirus, also contained genetic material from raccoon dogs, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus, the experts said.
Last month, the US Energy Department said the virus most likely leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan.
The World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the latest data findings do not provide a definitive answer on how the pandemic first began but stated “every piece of data is important to moving us closer to that answer”.
The WHO has criticised China for not sharing the genetic information earlier and said it should have been provided three years ago.
The international group also told the WHO they found DNA from other animals as well as raccoon dogs in the samples from the seafood market.
“There’s molecular evidence that animals were sold at Huanan market and that is new information,” said WHO’s COVID technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove.
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Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, who was involved in analysing the data, said: “There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus.”
And Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Edinburgh, said if analysis shows the animal viruses have earlier origins than the ones that infected people, “that’s probably as good evidence as we can expect to get that this was a spillover event in the market”.
After a weeks-long visit to China to study the pandemic’s origins, the WHO released a report in 2021 concluding COVID most probably jumped to humans from animals, dismissing the possibility of a lab origin as “extremely unlikely”.
But the UN health agency backtracked the following year, saying “key pieces of data” were still missing. And in recent months, Mr Tedros has said all hypotheses remained on the table.
The China CDC scientists, who previously analysed the market samples, published a paper as a preprint in February suggesting humans brought the virus to the market, not animals – implying COVID originated elsewhere.
Gao Fu, the former head of the Chinese CDC and lead author of the Chinese paper, told Science Magazine the sequences are “nothing new, it had been known there was illegal animal dealing and this is why the market was immediately shut down”.
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