Albuquerque Journal

New COVID origins data point to DNA from raccoon dogs

Samples came from surfaces at market in Wuhan, China


BEIJING — Genetic material collected at a Chinese market near where the first human cases of COVID-19 were identified show raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus, suggesting the pandemic may have originated from animals, not a lab, internatio­nal experts say.

Other experts have not yet verified their analysis, which has yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. How the coronaviru­s began sickening people remains uncertain. The sequences will have to be matched to the genetic record of how the virus evolved to see which came first.

“These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important to moving us closer to that answer,” World Health Organizati­on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s said Friday.

He criticized China for not sharing the genetic informatio­n earlier, telling a press briefing that “this data could have and should have been shared three years ago.”

The samples were collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in early 2020 in Wuhan, where the first human cases of COVID-19 were found in late 2019.

Tedros said the genetic sequences were recently uploaded to the world’s biggest public virus database by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

They were then removed, but not before a French biologist spotted the informatio­n by chance and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China that’s looking into the origins of the coronaviru­s.

The data show that some of the COVID-positive samples collected from a stall known to be involved in the wildlife trade also contained raccoon dog genes, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus, according to the scientists. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic.

“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analyzing the data. “If you were to go and do environmen­tal sampling in the aftermath of a zoonotic spillover event … this is basically exactly what you would expect to find.”

The canines, named for their raccoon-like faces, are often bred for their fur and sold for meat in animal markets across China.

Ray Yip, an epidemiolo­gist and founding member of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control office in China, said the findings are significan­t, even though they aren’t definitive.

“The market environmen­tal sampling data published by China CDC is by far the strongest evidence to support animal origins,” Yip told the AP in an email. He was not connected to the new analysis.

WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, cautioned that the analysis did not find the virus within any animal, nor did it find hard evidence animals infected humans.

The internatio­nal group also told WHO they found DNA from other animals as well as raccoon dogs in the samples from the seafood market.

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