An international team of virus experts announced on Thursday that they had discovered crucial genetic data linking the coronavirus with raccoon dogs for sale at a market in Wuhan, China. This discovery adds to the growing body of evidence that the pandemic may have originated from the illegal wildlife trade.
The first human cases of COVID-19 show raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus, adding evidence to the theory that the virus originated not from a lab, international experts say.
The Huanan market in Wuhan, where the genetic data was found, was the center of the pandemic, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus rapidly spreading to other locations in Wuhan in late 2019 and then to the rest of the world. The findings were made by a French researcher who stumbled upon genome sequences of samples taken from the market, which several of the earliest Covid-19 patients were linked to.
The WHO has urged China to share any information and data relating to the origins of Covid-19 with the international community. The organisation's Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, criticised China for withholding data related to samples taken at the Wuhan market in 2020, stating that these could have provided vital information about the pandemic's origins. The WHO called on China to be transparent and to share any results of investigations it conducts.
"We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results. Understanding how the pandemic began remains both a moral and scientific imperative, he said.
Ghebreyesus said that last Sunday, the global health agency was made aware of data published on the GISAID database in late January, and taken down again recently.
The data, from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, relates to samples taken at the Huanan market in Wuhan, in 2020, he said.
Ghebreyesus said while the data was online, scientists from a number of countries downloaded the data and analysed it.
As soon as we became aware of this data, we contacted the Chinese CDC and urged them to share it with WHO and the international scientific community so it can be analysed, he said, adding that WHO also convened the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or SAGO, which met on Tuesday.
We asked researchers from the Chinese CDC and the international group of scientists to present their analyses of the data to SAGO. These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer, he said.
In a report Thursday, the New York Times said that an international team of virus experts said they had found genetic data from a market in Wuhan, China, linking the coronavirus with raccoon dogs for sale there.
The NYT report said that the genetic data was drawn from swabs taken from in and around the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market starting in January 2020, shortly after the Chinese authorities had shut down the market because of suspicions that it was linked to the outbreak of a new virus.
While the animals had been cleared out from the market, researchers took swabs from the walls, floors, metal cages and carts used for transporting animal cages.
In samples that came back positive for the coronavirus, the international research team found genetic material belonging to animals, including large amounts that were a match for the raccoon dog, the report said, quoting three scientists involved in the analysis.
The report noted that after the international team came across the new data, it reached out to Chinese researchers who had uploaded the files with an offer to collaborate. However, after that, the sequences disappeared from GISAID.
Globally, there have been more than 760,360,900 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including over 6,873,400 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.