Not Bats, But Raccoons Could’ve Started The COVID-19 Pandemic – Experts

An international team of virus experts announced on Thursday that they had discovered genetic data from a market in Wuhan, China, linking the coronavirus to raccoon dogs for sale there, adding evidence to the case that the worst pandemic in a century could have been sparked by an infected animal traded illegally in the wildlife trade.

In a piece by The Atlantic, the genetic data was said to be derived from swabs collected in and near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market beginning in January 2020, shortly after the market was closed down by Chinese authorities due to fears that it was linked to the breakout of a new virus. The animals had been removed by that point, but researchers swabbed the walls, floors, metal cages, and carts commonly used to transport animal cages.

The international research team discovered animal genetic material in samples that tested positive for the coronavirus, including considerable amounts that matched the raccoon dog, according to three scientists engaged in the analysis.

The mixing of genetic material from the virus and the animal does not show that the raccoon dog was infected. Even if a raccoon dog was infected, it would be difficult to prove that the animal spread the virus to humans. Another animal could have passed the virus to people, or someone infected with the virus could have spread the virus to a raccoon dog.

The investigation did, however, show that raccoon dogs – fluffy animals related to foxes that are known to be capable of transmitting the coronavirus — left genetic traces in the same location where virus genetic material was found, according to the three scientists. The data, they claimed, was compatible with the virus spreading into humans from a wild animal.

“This really strengthens the case for a natural origin,” says Seema Lakdawala, a virologist at Emory University who wasn’t involved in the research.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist involved in the research, also told The Atlantic, “This is a really strong indication that animals at the market were infected. There’s really no other explanation that makes any sense.”

This development comes after new intelligence has led the Energy Department to determine that an unintentional laboratory leak in China most likely triggered the coronavirus outbreak. Some individuals briefed on the intelligence, however, said the report was rather weak, and the Energy Department’s assessment was reached with “low confidence,” implying that the level of assurance was not high. 

The coronavirus-positive samples had previously been examined by the same group of Chinese researchers who uploaded the data to an open-access genomic database called GISAID. Nevertheless, a previous study, published as a preprint in February 2022, claimed that “no animal host of SARS-CoV-2 can be deduced.” Any coronavirus motes at the market, the study argued, had most likely been driven in by diseased humans, rather than wild wildlife for sale.

The latest study–headed by Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona; Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California; and Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney–indicates that this is not the case. After downloading the data from GISAID, the trio and their partners noticed that some market samples that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were also replete with animal genetic material, much of which matched the common raccoon dog.

It was worth noting that Andersen initially informed National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci in January 2020 that some features of the virus made him wonder if it had been engineered, and that he and his colleagues planned to investigate further by analyzing the virus’s genome.

However, some time later, Andersen was the lead author of the scientific publication “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” published in Nature Medicine in March 2020, which determined that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. Later that year, the NIAID awarded Andersen’s lab a $8.9 million grant.

Andersen concluded in a 2022 study that animals sold at a market in Wuhan, China, were most likely the source of the infection.

Lakdawala said that the matching pattern in the genetic material of viruses and mammals isn’t perfect proof. She added, however, that it’s “an important step.”

The ideal situation to reach conclusive evidence of the animal origin theory is “isolating SARS-CoV-2 from a free-ranging raccoon dog or… uncovering a viral sample swabbed from a mammal for sale at Huanan from the time of the outbreak’s onset.”

However, the latest evidence presents a strong case for a narrative of how the pandemic started. Raccoon dogs, which are commonly bred for sale in China, are one of many animal species that can easily get and spread the coronavirus.

The researchers presented their findings on Tuesday at a hastily scheduled meeting of the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, which was also attended by several of the Chinese researchers responsible for the original analysis. Immediately after the meeting, the Chinese team’s preprint was accepted for review by Nature Research, implying that a revised version was being prepared for publication.

Evidence of a raccoon-dog host—or another animal—might still emerge. MERS, another coronavirus that caused a catastrophic outbreak in 2012, was eventually identified in camels, which are assumed to have received their first infection from bats—and which still contain the virus today; a similar tale has played out with Nipah virus, which hopped from bats to pigs to people.

Chinese officials have consistently dubbed the lab leak notion a fraud with no scientific basis and a political motivation.

According to scientists involved in the new analysis, after discovering the additional data, the international team reached out to the Chinese researchers who had uploaded the files with an offer to participate, in accordance with the rules of the online repository. Following that, the sequences vanished from GISAID.

It is unclear who deleted them or why they were removed.

The World Health Organization stated in a March 2021 report that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus arose accidently from a lab. Yet, China appointed half of the scientists who prepared the study and exercised significant control over it. That work has been generally dismissed by American policymakers.

According to intelligence authorities, there is no proof that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was intentionally produced as a biological weapon. However, they have stated that whether it emerged organically, possibly from a market in Wuhan, or mistakenly escaped from a lab is a genuine question.

More than a million Americans have died as a result of the pandemic, which began more than three years ago.

Information for this briefing was found via The Atlantic, The New York Times, and the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

Leave a Reply