Raccoon dogs and the mystery of COVID-19’s origins

The World Well being Group has obtained data pointing to the presence of raccoon canine—a species suspected by a few of initially spreading COVID-19 to people—on the Wuhan market tied to the virus’s early days, officers stated Friday.

Raccoon canine—identified to be inclined to COVID-19, and to unfold viruses to people—are thought to have been bought illegally on the market. They might be the lacking hyperlink within the chain of transmission from bats, presumably, to folks, specialists within the zoonotic transmission camp say.

However WHO officers Friday cautioned in opposition to assumptions, saying that whereas the knowledge is a vital piece of the proverbial jigsaw puzzle, “it doesn’t decide what the image exhibits”—and {that a} lab leak can’t be dominated out.

“The extra items you’ve in the precise place, the extra you begin to see a picture,” Dr. Michael Ryan, the group’s government director of well being emergencies, stated at a information convention, referencing the puzzle analogy. 

“You’re by no means actually positive what you’re constructing till you place a bit within the context of all the opposite items,” he stated. However “your degree of confidence grows as you place it collectively.”

No definitive reply

The WHO on Sunday was made conscious of knowledge from samples taken on the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan in the course of the early days of the pandemic, earlier than the market was shut down. That knowledge been revealed to GISAID—a global analysis database that tracks modifications in COVID and the flu virus—by officers with the Chinese language Middle for Illness Management and Prevention in late January, however was not too long ago taken down, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, WHO director common, stated on the information convention.

The data triggered a Tuesday assembly of WHO’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, which is investigating the virus’s origins. On the assembly, worldwide scientists who had obtained the info earlier than it was eliminated and analyzed it introduced their findings. Chinese language CDC officers additionally introduced, on the WHO’s request.

The brand new data gives no definitive solutions as to the pandemic’s origins, Ghebreyesu cautioned. “However every bit of knowledge is vital in transferring us nearer to that reply.”

All knowledge associated to learning the novel virus’s origins “must be shared with the worldwide group,” he stated. “The information might have—and will have—been shared three years in the past.”

The information exhibits solely that raccoon canine have been current on the market, along with different animals and the virus, Maria Van Verkohove, technical lead for COVID-19 on the WHO, stated.

Whereas it’s the primary little bit of molecular proof that animals have been illegally bought on the moist market, it’s not proof that such animals—or any animals—have been contaminated, she stated. Had they been, it wouldn’t essentially imply they introduced the virus to the market. They might have been contaminated by people, on the market or elsewhere.

“It simply tells us that extra knowledge exists, and that knowledge must be shared in full,” she stated.

A February 2022 preprint article, not peer reviewed, revealed by the Chinese language Academy of Science’s George Gao, the previous head of the nation’s CDC, and a litany of different researchers from the nation particulars 1,380 samples collected from the setting and animals on the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan in early 2020. 

A complete of 73 environmental samples have been constructive for COVID-19. The virus was not detected within the 18 animal swabs collected there, in keeping with the report.

A ‘smoking gun’

Dr. Georges Benjamin, government director of the American Public Well being Affiliation, instructed Fortune that the brand new data is “robust proof” supporting the idea of transmission of the virus from animals to folks.

Proof that “raccoon canine, a identified transmitter of viruses to people, have been in an unlawful moist market is a smoking gun,” Benjamin stated.

Dr. Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of analysis and affiliate professor on the New York Institute of Expertise campus in Jonesboro, Ark., known as the report “a key piece of the puzzle,” including that it’s going to permit virus trackers the power to “set up a timeline” of evolution.

Whereas the brand new data doesn’t clear up the puzzle, it gives important hope that the puzzle can, certainly, be solved, Benjamin stated. “It would take some painstaking analysis and science to do it. However now we have now a pathway to determine it out.”

Not everybody, nonetheless, agrees on the knowledge’s utility—a minimum of not but. Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious illness specialist and senior scholar on the Johns Hopkins Middle for Well being Safety, instructed Fortune that the scientific group at giant nonetheless doesn’t have entry to the info not too long ago pulled from the worldwide analysis database by Chinese language officers. 

Thus, there isn’t “sufficient data to have the ability to actually say something helpful” in regards to the report of raccoon canine DNA on the market, Adalja stated. “No proof has really been introduced as of but.”

If the info is, certainly, scientifically legitimate, “it will lend help to the consensus view that COVID-19 seemingly spilled over from an animal right into a human with out there being any lab accidents or intentional launch,” Dr. Jay Varma, chief medical adviser on the New York-based suppose tank Kroll Institute, instructed Fortune.

However it’s potential that raccoon canine are nothing however a purple herring, in relation to figuring out the origins of COVID, Varma cautions. 

There have been anecdotal studies of “COVID or COVID-like sickness” not tied to the market occurring way back to November 2019—earlier than the market’s super-spreading occasions in December.

These circumstances might sign that COVID-19 didn’t spill into people from the market—or that such spill-over wasn’t chargeable for the primary human circumstances of COVID.

Varma spent three years in China with the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, engaged on the difficulty of respiratory virus circulation in central China. He says he’s at all times thought there have been a number of spill-overs from animals to people within the area between October and December 2019.

An outbreak occurred on the market, he stated. However it could not have began there.

Spillovers could have occurred “another person in and round Wuhan,” he stated.