Data Points Finger at New COVID Culprit

Virus samples from Wuhan market contained genetic material of raccoon dogs: experts
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 17, 2023 7:43 AM CDT
New Data Fuels 'Big Advance' on COVID Origins
A raccoon dog in a cage.   (Getty Images/Astakhova)

A team of virus experts has linked the coronavirus to raccoon dogs illegally sold at a market in Wuhan, China, for "the strongest evidence yet that an animal started the pandemic," according to the Atlantic. The virus was found in samples taken from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market beginning in January 2020, after animals had been cleared out, including some with animal genetic material. Much of that material matched with the raccoon dog. "We can't prove definitively there was an infected animal," Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, tells the New York Times. "But given that the animals that were present in the market were not sampled at the time, this is as good as we can hope to get."

Chinese experts used the same market samples as part of a preprint in February 2022, which suggested samples of virus had come from infected people, rather than animals. Researchers, who'd been pushing for the release of this undisclosed genetic data, suddenly found it available on GISAID, an international repository of genetic sequences of viruses, earlier this month, per the Times. An international team of virologists, genomicists, and evolutionary biologists then set to work analyzing the information. One sample taken from a stall that had featured caged raccoon dogs on top of a cage of birds contained "a lot of raccoon dog nucleic acid, along with virus nucleic acid," says Goldstein.

It's "a really strong indication that animals at the market were infected," Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, tells the Atlantic, per the Daily Beast. "It's not the 'eureka' moment, but it's a pretty big advance," one that shifts momentum away from the lab leak theory, Dominic Dwyer, a medical virologist and infectious diseases physician who's probed COVID's origins, tells Bloomberg. According to the Times, the genetic sequences disappeared from the online repository when researchers contacted Chinese scientists about collaborating on an analysis. The researchers continue to analyze the data, however. They're also calling for the release of additional information. (More coronavirus stories.)

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