BEIJING, March 18 (AP) – Genetic material collected near the Chinese market where the first human case of COVID-19 was found showed raccoon DNA mixed with the virus, fueling the theory that the virus originated in animals rather than animals. Provided evidence lab, international experts say.
“These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic started, but each piece of data is important and can bring us closer to that answer,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.
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How the coronavirus emerged is unclear. Many scientists believe it likely jumped from animals to humans at a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, as many other viruses have done in the past. But Wuhan has several labs involved in collecting and studying the coronavirus, and scientists believe the virus may have leaked from one lab, lending support to the theory.
The new findings do not address this question, and they have not been formally reviewed by other experts or published in a peer-reviewed journal.
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Tedros criticized China for not sharing genetic information sooner, telling a news conference that “these data could and should have been shared three years ago.”
These samples were collected in early 2020 from the surface of the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where the first human case of COVID-19 was detected in late 2019.
Scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently uploaded the genetic sequence to the world’s largest public virus database, Tedros said.
They were then removed, but not before a French biologist stumbled upon the information and shared it with a group of scientists outside China who were studying the origin of the coronavirus.
The scientists said data showed that some COVID-positive samples collected from a stall known to be involved in the wildlife trade also contained the raccoon gene, suggesting the animals may have been infected with the virus. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic.
“It’s very likely that the animals that deposited this DNA also deposited the virus,” said University of Utah virologist Stephen Goldstein, who was involved in the analysis of the data. “If you do environmental sampling after a zoonotic spillover event… …which is basically exactly what you would expect to find.”
Named for their raccoon-like faces, the canids are often bred for their fur and sold as meat at animal markets across China.
Ye Lei, an epidemiologist and a founding member of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s China office, said the findings are significant, though they are not conclusive.
“The market environment sampling data published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is by far the strongest evidence supporting the animal source,” Ye told The Associated Press in an email. He has nothing to do with the new analysis.
The WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, warned that the analysis did not find the virus in any animals, nor did it find any conclusive evidence that any animals had infected humans.
“It really gives us clues as to what might be going on,” she said. The international organization also told WHO that they found DNA from other animals and raccoons in samples from the seafood market, she added.
The genetic code of coronaviruses is strikingly similar to bat coronaviruses, and many scientists suspect that COVID-19 entered humans either directly from bats or through intermediate animals such as pangolins, ferrets or raccoons.
Efforts to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have been complicated by several factors, including a massive surge in human infections and growing political disputes during the first two years of the pandemic.
It took more than a decade for virologists to pinpoint the animal origin of a related virus like SARS.
Goldstein and his colleagues say their analysis is the first conclusive indication that there may be wildlife in the market infected with the coronavirus. But it’s also possible that humans brought the virus to the market and infected raccoon dogs, or that the infected humans just happened to leave traces of the virus near the animals.
The sequences were removed from the global virus database after scientists on the team contacted the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they said. The researchers were puzzled as to why the sample data, collected three years ago, had not been made public sooner. Tedros asked China to share more COVID-19 research data.
Gao Fu, the former head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the paper in China, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment from The Associated Press. But he told Science that the sequences “are nothing new. It’s well known that there is an illegal animal trade, and that’s why the market was shut down immediately.”
Goldstein said his team presented its findings this week to a WHO advisory group investigating the origins of COVID-19.
Michael Imperiale, a microbiology and immunology expert at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the data analysis, said finding a sample with the virus and a raccoon sequence “puts the virus and the dog in very close proximity. But it doesn’t necessarily say that A dog had the virus; it just said they were in the same very small area.”
Most of the current scientific evidence supports natural exposure in markets, he said, pointing to research published last summer suggesting markets may have been an early epicenter of the disaster and concluding that the virus was transmitted from animals on two occasions to humans. “How likely is it that there are two different lab leaks?” he asked.
Mark Woolhouse, an infectious disease expert at the University of Edinburgh, said it was crucial to understand how the raccoon’s genetic sequence matched the known historical evolution of the COVID-19 virus. If the dogs are shown to be infected with COVID, and the viruses are shown to have an earlier origin than the ones that infect humans, “that’s probably the best evidence we can expect of a spillover event in the market.”
Following a week-long visit to China to study the origins of the pandemic, the WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that COVID-19 most likely jumped from animals to humans and that the laboratory The possibility of origin is “highly unlikely”.
But the UN health agency reversed course the following year, saying “critical data” were still missing. Tedros said all assumptions were on the table.
Scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who previously analyzed samples from the South China market, published a preprint paper in February showing that humans brought the virus to the market, not animals, suggesting the virus originated elsewhere. Their paper does not mention that animal genes were found in the samples that tested positive.
In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy had assessed with “low confidence” that the virus had escaped from a laboratory. But others in the U.S. intelligence community disagree, arguing it’s more likely to have come from animals in the first place.
Experts say the true origins of the pandemic may not be known – if ever – for many years. (Associated Press)
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