A new analysis of genetic data by an international team of researchers has found evidence that COVID-19 originated in infected animals sold in Wuhan, China.
As first reported by The Atlantic, French evolutionary biologist Florence Débarre recently revealed genetic data from the global virology database GISAID. The data was provided by Chinese researchers who collected genetic sequences from the Huana Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been investigated as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the name, thousands of mammals were found to have been sold at the market, where they were kept in cramped and unsanitary premises.
Genetic data suggest that poodles sold at the market could carry and spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus at that time. The analysis, which is not definitive, is led by researchers Kristian Andersen, Edward Holmes and Michael Worobey.
In communication with The Atlantic writer Katherine J. Wu, Andersen said they did not know if raccoons were the immediate hosts of the virus when it infected humans, but said they were “high” on his list of possible hosts.
These findings, which have not been published, were presented to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Emerging Pathogens on Tuesday. Science magazine noted that the study submitted to GISAID has since been removed at the request of the original submitters.
This new evidence adds fuel to the ongoing lab leak versus natural origin debate, which has recently gained new momentum with the US Department of Energy’s conclusion that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese research lab.
Proponents of the laboratory leak theory have vehemently argued that it cannot be a coincidence that COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, near the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where coronaviruses were studied.
However, opponents of this theory argue that there is not enough evidence of a laboratory leak and also point out that previous coronavirus outbreaks have had confirmed animal sources.
A consensus on the origins of COVID-19 is still far from clear, and some researchers question whether a definitive answer will ever be given, especially as China continues to resist providing more information.
In its 2021 report on the possible origins of COVID-19, the WHO gave probable credence to the animal transmission theory, pointing to bats or mink as possible reservoirs of the disease. The organization stated at the time that additional information was needed about the supply chain of the Huanan market.
Tracing the origin of the virus often takes years, but previous efforts have traced it to an animal origin. Researchers have linked human infections with MERS, a virus in the coronavirus family that was first reported in 2012, to interactions with infected camels.
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