International scientists who examined previously unavailable genetic data from samples collected at a market close to where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected in China said they found suggestions the pandemic originated from animals, not a lab.
The samples were collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the first human cases of COVID-19 were found in late 2019. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the genetic sequences were uploaded to the world’s biggest public virus database in late January by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention; the data have since been removed from the database. A French biologist spotted the information by chance while scouring the database and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China and looking into the origins of the coronavirus.
Genetic sequencing data showed that some of the 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, according to the scientists. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic. “There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analyzing the data. “If you were to go and do environmental sampling in the aftermath of a zoonotic spillover event … this is basically exactly what you would expect to find.”
The samples that came back positive for the virus also contained genetic material of several animals, particularly large amounts matching the common raccoon dog. “In samples with a hot amount of virus, there was not a trivial amount of DNA and RNA of raccoon dogs,” Dr. Jeremy Kamil, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport, who was not involved in the research, told ABC News.
Although this doesn’t definitively prove that the virus definitely jumped from raccoon dogs to humans, the team said it is the strongest evidence to date of the natural transmission theory.
“This is a really strong indication that animals at the market were infected,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, one of the virologists involved in the new report, told The Atlantic. “There’s really no other explanation that makes any sense.”
❋ The analysis has not appeared so far in a peer-reviewed journal.
❋ The data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic began.
❋ It’s possible that humans might have first brought the virus to the market and infected the raccoon dogs.
❋ In February the U.S. Department of Energy had assessed “with low confidence” that the virus had leaked from a lab.