Was the raccoon dog the origin of Corona?
Wie the World Health Organization (WHO) now announced, the Health Authority’s Scientific Advisory Group on the Origin of New Pathogens (SAGO) discussed new analyzes on gene sequences attributed to nearly three-year-old samples from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan this Tuesday. WHO chief Tedros said on Friday that the new data could not clearly answer the question of the origin of Sars-CoV-2, but that every piece of the puzzle is important.
Researchers from the Chinese disease control agency CDC recently published the sequences on the international gene database called GISAID. According to a media report in the journal Science, theoretical biologist Florence Débarre from the Paris Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences discovered the data in early March. Scientists from different countries downloaded them and analyzed them – they found that some samples not only contained virus material from Sars-CoV-2, but also gene segments that came from different animals, including raccoon dogs in particular. The raccoon dog can come along coronaviruses infect and is repeatedly traded illegally on Asian animal and meat markets. Whether the animals were actually infected cannot be deduced from the information available so far. The researchers around Débarre are currently preparing a publication on this.
Ways of infection still unclear
Based on the newly discovered gene sequences, he believes that there were infected animals on the market, biologist Kristian Andersen from California’s Scripps Research Institute told the US magazine “The Atlantic”. He analyzes the new data with Débarre. Andersen had previously researched the question of the origin of the corona and explained that it was probably natural.
It remains unclear for the time being whether the virus was actually transmitted to humans via raccoon dogs. It is also conceivable that the animals became infected with other species – or with humans – at the market or elsewhere. Since raccoon dogs were apparently sold here, which have been shown to be easily infected with Sars-CoV-2, it would not be surprising given the spread of Covid-19 at the time the sample was taken if they were infected if they were not already infected.
“Nothing new” for Chinese researchers
According to Science, the researchers recently contacted George Gao, who was the head of China until July 2022 CDC was, and his colleagues to work with them. Shortly thereafter, the gene sequences were deleted from the database, according to GISAID due to a request from China. According to Science, Gao did not answer an inquiry as to why the data was deleted, but explained that it was “nothing new”: The fact that animals were sold illegally at the market was the reason why it was closed in early 2020. The data would not answer the question of the origin of Sars-CoV-2, Gao said according to the report – this is still open.
Chinese researchers, like him, had previously stated that no positive samples from mammals had been found on the market. In February 2022, they published an analysis of possibly the same samples as the ones now analyzed, but without the publication going through an external review process. According to experts, however, a graphic in this indicated that there could have been some mixing with genetic material from different animals. The Chinese researchers explained at the time that people had probably brought the virus to the market and that this only increased the spread.
WHO calls on Beijing for transparency
“The data could and should have been published three years ago,” said WHO chief Tedros on Friday. “We continue to call on China to be transparent with the data, to carry out the necessary investigations and to publish the results.” Understanding how the pandemic began remains “a moral and scientific imperative”.
Some researchers see the data as a possible indication that Sars-CoV-2 has a natural origin. Some US authorities, on the other hand, assume that a laboratory origin is more likely – the FBI chief Christopher Wray had recently confirmed earlier analyzes by the police department, but without citing concrete evidence.