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Recent Data Links Pandemic’s Origins to Raccoon Dogs at Wuhan Market


A world team of virus experts said on Thursday that that they had found genetic data from a market in Wuhan, China, linking the coronavirus with raccoon dogs on the market there, adding evidence to the case that the worst pandemic in a century might have been ignited by an infected animal that was being dealt through the illegal wildlife trade.

The genetic data was drawn from swabs taken from in and across the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market starting in January 2020, shortly after the Chinese authorities had shut down the market due to suspicions that it was linked to the outbreak of a latest virus. By then, the animals had been cleared out, but researchers swabbed partitions, floors, metal cages and carts often used for transporting animal cages.

In samples that got here 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, three scientists involved within the evaluation said.

The jumbling together of genetic material from the virus and the animal doesn’t prove that a raccoon dog itself was infected. And even when a raccoon dog had been infected, it could not be clear that the animal had spread the virus to people. One other animal could have passed the virus to people, or someone infected with the virus could have spread the virus to a raccoon dog.

However the evaluation did establish that raccoon dogs — fluffy animals which are related to foxes and are known to have the option to transmit the coronavirus — deposited genetic signatures in the identical place where genetic material from the virus was left, the three scientists said. That evidence, they said, was consistent with a scenario through which the virus had spilled into humans from a wild animal.

A report with the total details of the international research team’s findings has not yet been published. Their evaluation was first reported by The Atlantic.

The brand new evidence is certain to offer a jolt to the talk over the pandemic’s origins, even when it doesn’t resolve the query of the way it began.

In recent weeks, the so-called lab leak theory, which posits that the coronavirus emerged from a research lab in Wuhan, has gained traction because of a latest intelligence assessment from the U.S. Department of Energy and hearings led by the brand new Republican House leadership.

However the genetic data from the market offers a few of the most tangible evidence yet of how the virus could have spilled into people from wild animals outside a lab. It also suggests that Chinese scientists have given an incomplete account of evidence that might fill in details about how the virus was spreading on the Huanan market.

Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport who was not involved within the study, said the findings showed that “the samples from the market that had early Covid lineages in them were contaminated with DNA reads of untamed animals.”

Dr. Kamil said that fell wanting conclusive evidence that an infected animal had set off the pandemic. But, he said, “it really puts the highlight on the illegal animal trade in an intimate way.”

Chinese scientists had released a study taking a look at the identical market samples in February 2022. That study had reported that samples were positive for the coronavirus but suggested that the virus had come from infected individuals who were shopping or working available in the market, moderately than from animals being sold there.

Sooner or later, those self same researchers, including some affiliated with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, posted the raw data from swabs across the market to GISAID, a global repository of genetic sequences of viruses. (Attempts to succeed in the Chinese scientists by phone on Thursday weren’t successful.)

On March 4, Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist on the French National Center for Scientific Research, happened to be searching that database for information related to the Huanan market when, she said in an interview, she noticed more sequences than usual popping up. Confused at first about whether or not they contained latest data, Dr. Débarre put them aside, only to log in again last week and discover that they held a trove of raw data.

Virus experts had been awaiting that raw sequence data from the market since they learned of its existence within the Chinese report from February 2022. Dr. Débarre said she had alerted other scientists, including the leaders of a team that had published a set of studies last 12 months pointing to the market because the origin.

A world team — which included Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist on the University of Arizona; Kristian Andersen, a virologist on the Scripps Research Institute in California; and Edward Holmes, a biologist on the University of Sydney — began mining the brand new genetic data last week.

One sample specifically caught their attention. It had been taken from a cart linked to a selected stall on the Huanan market that Dr. Holmes had visited in 2014, scientists involved within the evaluation said. That stall, Dr. Holmes found, contained caged raccoon dogs on top of a separate cage holding birds, precisely the type of environment conducive to the transmission of latest viruses.

The swab taken from a cart there in early 2020, the research team found, contained genetic material from the virus and a raccoon dog.

“We were capable of work out relatively quickly that not less than in one in all these samples, there was loads of raccoon dog nucleic acid, together with virus nucleic acid,” said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist on the University of Utah who worked on the brand new evaluation. (Nucleic acids are the chemical constructing blocks that carry genetic information.)

After the international team stumbled upon the brand new data, they reached out to the Chinese researchers who had uploaded the files with a suggestion to collaborate, hewing to rules of the web repository, scientists involved with the brand new evaluation said. After that, the sequences disappeared from GISAID.

It just isn’t clear who removed them or why they were taken down.

Dr. Débarre said the research team was looking for more data, including some from market samples that were never made public. “What’s necessary is there’s still more data,” she said.

Scientists involved with the evaluation said that a few of the samples had also contained genetic material from other animals and from humans. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist on the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization on the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who worked on the evaluation, said that the human genetic material was to be expected on condition that people were shopping and dealing there and that human Covid cases had been linked to the market.

Dr. Goldstein, too, cautioned that “we don’t have an infected animal, and we are able to’t prove definitively there was an infected animal at that stall.” Genetic material from the virus is stable enough, he said, that it just isn’t clear when exactly it was deposited on the market. He said that the team was still analyzing the info and that it had not intended for its evaluation to change into public before it had released a report.

“But,” he said, “on condition that the animals that were present available in the market weren’t sampled on the time, that is pretty much as good as we are able to hope to get.”

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