New study names raccoon dogs from Wuhan as possible cause of COVID-19

A new analysis of genetic information conducted by an international group of researchers has found evidence suggesting COVID-19 came from infected animals sold at a market in Wuhan, China.

As first reported by The Atlantic, French evolutionary biologist Florence D├ębarre recently discovered genetic data from the global virology database GISAID. The data was submitted by Chinese researchers who collected the genetic sequences from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been scrutinized as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the name, thousands of mammals were found to have been sold on the market, where they were kept in cramped and unsanitary spaces.

The genetic data suggested that raccoon dogs sold in the market at the time could be carrying and spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The analysis, which is not conclusive, is led by researchers Kristian Andersen, Edward Holmes and Michael Worobey.

In communication with Atlantic writer Katherine J. Wu, Andersen said they didn’t know if raccoon dogs were the direct hosts for the virus to infect humans, but said they were “high” on his list of potential hosts, among other things.

These findings, which have not been published, were presented Tuesday to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Scientific Advisory Group on the Origin of Novel Pathogens. The journal Science noted that the study submitted to GISAID has since been removed at the request of the original submitters.

This new evidence adds even more fuel to the ongoing debate over lab leaks versus natural origins, which has recently gained new impetus with the US Department of Energy’s conclusion that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese research lab.

Proponents of the lableak theory have fervently argued that it cannot be a coincidence that COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, near the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where research on coronaviruses was conducted.

However, opponents of this theory argue that there is not enough evidence to suggest there was a laboratory leak and also point out that previous coronavirus outbreaks have had animal sources.

A consensus on the origins of COVID-19 is still a long way off, and some researchers question whether there will ever be a conclusive answer, especially given China’s continued resistance to provide further data.

In its 2021 report on the possible origins of COVID-19, the WHO likely gave credence to the animal transmission theory by pointing to bats or minks as possible reservoirs for the disease. The organization stated at the time that more information would be needed about the supply chain of the Huanan market.

Tracing the origin of a virus often takes years, but previous attempts can be traced back to an animal origin. Researchers have linked human infections of MERS, a virus in the coronavirus family first reported in 2012, to interactions with infected camels.

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