Genetic material from wildlife – including raccoon dogs – has been uncovered in a new analysis of data collected from the Wuhan wet market in the early stages of the pandemic.
It is not a “smoking gun” but provides the “strongest evidence” yet that animals susceptible to Sars-Cov-2 were traded at the site in late 2019 and may have acted as the “intermediate host”, which passed the virus from bats to humans.
According to the scientists involved, the findings are a critical clue to better understand the origins of the virus.
It also shows that China is sitting on more data than it has released or shared globally.
An international team of researchers was able to analyse samples from swabs taken just after authorities shut down Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – which was linked to the first known Covid cases – because Chinese researchers quietly posted 600 gigabytes of data on GISAID, a database of genetic sequences.
Rumours are circulating that a major scientific paper is about to be published by Chinese scientists. But the raw GISAID data marks the first time scientists outside China have been able to analyse original swabs taken from walls, floors, metal cages and carts in the market in early 2020.
The results have not yet been published, but researchers involved said that, in samples positive for Sars-Cov-2, they found genetic material belonging to animals – including significant amounts that came from raccoon dogs.
This does not prove that these animals – which are intensively farmed in China – were infected. But it demonstrates that wildlife was definitely being illegally sold at Huanan market, something China has denied, and shows raccoon dogs deposited genetic material in the same areas where Sars-Cov-2 was found.
“What we are seeing is the genomic ghost of that animal in the stalls,” said Dr Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
“It’s close to the best [evidence] we can get, because the animals were gone when they sample the markets.”
Yesterday, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove – head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) emerging diseases unit – said the “detailed” data provided important clues, as it was the first “molecular evidence” that raccoon dogs and other animals susceptible to Sars-Cov-2 were at the market.
But it “doesn’t give us the answer of how the pandemic began”, she added.
“Every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO. “And every piece of data… needs to be shared with the international community immediately. This data could and should have been shared three years ago.”
The analysis comes amid renewed debates about how Sars-Cov-2 first jumped into humans, following hearings in the US Congress and an American intelligence report that concluded with “low confidence” that the outbreak started in a laboratory-linked incident. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2023)
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland
Telegraph Media Group Limited