The long-running and bitter debate about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has added a small but potentially significant data point: A sample taken from a market in Wuhan in early 2020 showed genetic traces of both the coronavirus and a raccoon dog, according to scientists who analyzed recent findings. data from China.
New covid lineage data links raccoon dogs to pandemic
Like many elements of the mystery, new data first reported Atlantic Oceandoes not prove how, where and when people first contracted the virus. But it does support the theory that the pandemic started naturally from animals rather than originating in a laboratory, a theory that some researchers support.
This was stated by the Director General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. resumed his call for China to share scientific data on the origin of the pandemic.
“We continue to call on China to be transparent in data sharing, and to carry out the necessary investigations and share results,” Tedros said. “Understanding how the pandemic began remains both a moral and a scientific imperative.”
The new evidence comes from swabs taken from animal stalls at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Investigators collected them at the beginning of 2020, when the market was closed and all the animals were taken away. One the smear contained a mixture of genetic material, including a large number of a raccoon dog along with traces from the coronavirus, said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was part of the team that analyzed the data.
“We can’t definitively prove that there were infected raccoon dogs that were the first source of the virus to enter humans,” Goldstein said, “but it’s very suggestive.”
What you need to know about raccoon dogs that may be linked to the origin of the coronavirus
According to Goldstein, the data came from Chinese scientists who submitted a paper to a scientific journal that has yet to be published. The scientists involved in the new analysis, which has not been peer-reviewed or published in a journal, said they plan to publish their work online within the next few days.
“I would love to see their paper come out before news of our analysis is out,” said Michael Sparrow, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Arizona who took part in the new analysis.
“We would like to collaborate with Chinese scientists and this is still our intention going forward,” Goldstein said.
Other animals that are likely to have been sold on the market may also be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the new data “raises raccoon dogs to the top of the list of pandemic-causing animals,” Robert Gurry, a virologist at Tulane University who took part in the new analysis and a longtime proponent of market theory, said in an email Friday. .
“It’s just another brick on a huge wall of evidence that fits together,” Sparrow said. “If it wasn’t so politicized, it would be one of the most glaring sets of evidence we’ve ever had on how the pandemic came about.”
But David A. Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University who said both origin scenarios are plausible, called the new data “very inconclusive” in an email. “Honestly, the breathlessness and zeal with which stories like this are pushed forward in the face of very incomplete and confusing ‘data’ leaves me frustrated and worried,” he said.
The debate about the origin of the virus has become highly politicized, and this latest data from scientists who have long advocated a market origin is unlikely to change the views of those who support the lab leak theory.
“There are no smoking guns in this case,” said Peter Hotez, co-director Texas Children’s Hospital Vaccine Development Center. “But if you look collectively at the evidence available to date, so far it all points to a natural origin for covid.” Addressing the origin question will be critical to preparing scientists for any future coronavirus outbreak, he said.
House Republicans are holding hearings on the origin of the pandemic, and Republican lawmakers are pushing the theory of a lab leak and the possible blame of American scientists and government officials. Robert Redfield, director of the Trump administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified on March 8 that the pandemic most likely began with a lab leak.
President Biden asked his intelligence agencies to look into the origin of the virus two years ago, and they failed to reach consensus, although they agreed that it was not a bioweapon. Four agencies and the National Intelligence Council favored natural origin with “low confidence”. The FBI approved the lab leak with “moderate confidence”.
But shortly before the opening of the pandemic hearings in the GOP-led House of Representatives, an updated report from the intelligence community showed that the Energy Department had moved from neutral to concluding, again with “low confidence”, that a laboratory origin was most likely. probably. This decision was not accompanied by new data or an explanation of why the researchers began to favor the theory of laboratory leaks.
Geography has played a huge role in the debate. The Covid outbreak started in Wuhan, home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has done extensive research on coronaviruses. There has long been a debate in the scientific community about the relative risks and benefits of experiments that, in an attempt to understand viruses, manipulate them in ways that make them more transmissible or virulent.
But since the outbreak began in Wuhan, the Huanan Seafood Market has been in the spotlight. Many of the first documented human cases of the virus were concentrated in and around the market. Among the sick were sellers. And environmental samples showed the presence of the virus mainly in that part of the vast market where animals were sold and butchered.
“The market is like a bull’s-eye,” Sparrow said. “Clearly, in December, the first cases in the community were freshly bled from ground zero in the market.”
Goldstein said he believes animals with the virus likely contracted it on a farm or elsewhere before they were brought to market.
China has long denied that the virus came from the market or a lab, and instead speculated that it originated overseas. Chinese scientists and lab leakers said the cluster of cases in Huanan could be explained as a superspreading case caused by an infected person shopping in a crowded market.
Last summer, the journal Science published two papers written by many the same scientists who did this new analysis, who claimed there were at least two separate side effects from the animals in the Wuhan market. But the authors of the papers acknowledged that their report did not resolve many questions about the spills, including what animal or animals were involved, who sold them, or where they came from.
The new study still doesn’t. But it raises the possibility that a raccoon dog or some other animal contracted the virus in late 2019.
“The bottom line is that there were animals on the market and they are right where the virus was,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan who took part in the new analysis, said in an email. “We can’t say for sure if they were infected, but this is very strong evidence that live animals in the Huanan market were the cause of the pandemic.”
Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University who was not involved in the new analysis, said the origin of the pandemic may forever remain unclear.
“As with any cold case, the evidence is unlikely to get stronger over time, so aside from the time machine, this may be the closest we have ever come to an origin,” Neumann said in an email. “We still don’t have definitive evidence of animal-to-human transmission of the virus, but this is a big step in that direction.”