WHO Presses China to Release Raccoon Dog Data in Search for Covid’s Origins

Chinese authorities are withholding genetic evidence that could provide clues about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization said, pointing to data temporarily posted online by Chinese scientists, and then removed, that indicated the presence of wild animals at a Wuhan market.
China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention in late January briefly published genetic sequences done in 2020 that appear to show the presence of raccoon dogs and other animals at China’s Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, site of the first known Covid case cluster, WHO officials said Friday.
The sequences, posted to a global database used by virologists, have since been taken offline, the WHO said, frustrating efforts to trace whether a raccoon dog or another animal could have been involved in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, to humans.
“Every piece of data relating to studying the origins of Covid-19 needs to be shared with the international community, immediately,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. “This data could have and should have been shared three years ago.”
Dr. Tedros said the WHO asked the Chinese CDC this week to repost its data again now so that it can be analyzed.
The WHO has grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the search for the pandemic’s origins. The agency’s initial origins research team only managed to make one visit to China, in January 2021. And Beijing has declined to provide information requested by the global public-health agency.
WHO officials said they first learned of the sequences on Sunday. They appear to indicate what many scientists have long suspected: that the seafood market where the first cluster was recorded in the city of Wuhan was also selling wild mammals, including species such as raccoon dogs that are susceptible to Covid-19. They are less clear on whether those animals were infected with the virus.
“We knew raccoon dogs were present in the market. What this shows is that raccoon dogs were present in the same stall where the virus was also deposited,” said Stephen Goldstein of the University of Utah, who belongs to a group of scientists that downloaded the sequences for analysis before they were removed.
The WHO’s initial origins research team visited the closed seafood market in Wuhan in January 2021, its only visit to China.PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
A report by the scientists hasn’t yet been published. The Atlantic first reported the scientists’ initial analysis this week.
Dr. Goldstein said that in a stall where five Covid-19 virus samples were found, the amount of raccoon dog genetic material encountered was substantial. That doesn’t prove the animals were infected, he said, but “I think it is quite likely they were infected.”
Dr. Goldstein said there is no proof that even if animals in the market were infected with the virus, that they gave it to humans. Humans could have given the virus to the animals, he said.
Asked about the sequences on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters that the country always cooperates with the WHO. The agency should look at whether the virus came from another country, he said.
“We also expect that the WHO and relevant countries can share with us the research results of origins-tracing in other parts of the world in a timely manner,” he said.
By itself, genetic information showing the presence of such animals at the market wouldn’t settle a yearslong debate over whether the virus emerged directly from animals, perhaps through the trade in wildlife, or was the result of a lab accident.
Both hypotheses remain open, WHO officials said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t give us an answer of how the pandemic began, but it does provide more clues,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead.
The U.S. intelligence community has found a mixed picture. Four intelligence agencies have leaned with low confidence toward a natural spillover, while the FBI and Energy Department consider a lab mishap more likely.
The WHO’s initial origins research team found no proof that live mammals were sold at the seafood market, during its 2021 visit, a conclusion that Chinese researchers argued suggested the virus might have entered China on frozen seafood, imported from another country.
Later that year, a study showed 47,000 live mammals were sold in Wuhan’s markets, including the seafood market. Almost all of those creatures were caged in unhygienic conditions that could have helped a novel virus evolve and spread, said the study, by researchers from the China West Normal University, the University of Oxford and Canada’s University of British Columbia.
The new genetic sequences appear to show raccoon dog DNA mixed in with samples taken from the seafood market, confirming that live animals were indeed present.
Florence Débarre, a senior researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Paris, said she noticed the sequences between when China’s CDC posted them, and when they were taken down. They were published in the GISAID database, a web portal where virologists share genetic sequences of various pathogens, including the Covid-19 virus.
“They were not in earlier versions of the database,” Dr. Débarre said.
Virologists and animal-health experts agreed the three-year-old data are important but don’t offer definitive proof of an animal spillover at the seafood market.
“We can’t definitely say it was the raccoon dogs that carried the virus into the market, but the data is consistent with that scenario and is the most parsimonious explanation,” said Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans who said he has analyzed the sequences.

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