New study reveals the Covid origins data that China suppressed

Data was found for raccoon dogs, a preprint detailed
Data was found for raccoon dogs, a preprint detailed

A detailed analysis of hitherto unseen genetic data taken from the Wuhan wet market at the start of the pandemic shows that up to 13 different species of live animals were being sold, according to a preprint published late on Monday night.

Raccoon dogs – a fox-like mammal farmed for their fur and known to be susceptible to coronaviruses – were the most prevalent species for which data was found, but others included porcupines, bamboo rats, Himalayan marmots, masked palm civets and Siberian weasels.

The 19-strong international research team behind the analysis say the new data “contribute to and underscore the large body of evidence supporting a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2”.

They add that by tracing the animals, for which there is data, back to the farms and regions from where they came, further data may be found on the origins of the virus.

“Our findings reinforce the need for further analyses to address transmission between and from possible intermediate host species, and provide potential clues to the upstream events that led to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 into humans,” says the report.

The data on which the paper relies was quietly uploaded to the international GISAID database by a team of Chinese researchers headed by George Gao, the former head of China’s CDC, in June last year but only made searchable in March.

Vendors wearing masks sell seafood on Xihua Farmer's Market in Guangzhou - Shutterstock
Vendors wearing masks sell seafood on Xihua Farmer's Market in Guangzhou - Shutterstock

The researchers say Mr Gao initially gave them permission to analyse the data but that the sequences were withdrawn within 24 hours of the team reporting back to him that animal data had been found among the samples uploaded.

An earlier study published by Mr Gao et al said no animal data had been found.

“On 10 March we advised the same author that we had discovered the presence of animal genetic material in the samples. On 11 March 2023, we discovered that the data had been made unavailable (at the request of the submitter)”, says the new paper.

Prof Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London who was not involved in the latest study, said the findings were important.

In particular, the fact that racoon dog DNA was found in SARS-CoV-2 samples on stalls in the market with no detectable human DNA was suggestive of the animals themselves being infected, he said.

He added: “We [now] need to know where those animals came from. Were they farmed? Is there any prospect of chasing them back up the supply chain? And has the China CDC done this already?”

In the new preprint, the authors note that China is known to hold further data samples from the first days of the pandemic, which it has yet to publish.

One of the preprint’s authors, Prof David Robertson of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, said the new data provided “strong evidence” that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan in 2020 - AP
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan in 2020 - AP

"It’s a further piece of strong evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 spillover occurred at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market. Combined with the epidemiological linkage of the early COVID-19 cases to the Huanan market and the linkage of the other early cases to this location by home address, this confirmation of susceptible animals being present in the part of the market where there’s lots of positive environmental samples (taken from cages, carts, a feather/hair remover etc) is very compelling.

He added: "Importantly while more evidence accumulates on the natural origin side, there remains not a shred of evidence that a lab-leak occurred, just speculations and misinformation."

But it is not likely that the debate about the origins of the virus will be settled any time soon.

On Monday night, President Joe Biden signed the Covid-19 Origin Act of 2023, saying he shares "the Congress's goal of releasing as much information as possible about the origin of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid–19)”.

The legislation was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and may prompt US intelligence agencies to publish what, if any data, they hold on the origins of the outbreak.

Currently US intelligence is divided on how the pandemic started.

Four of the eight US intelligence agencies suspect a natural origin for the virus with "low confidence," while two of them — the US Department of Energy and the FBI — think a laboratory accident is most likely, with the latter having "moderate confidence" in its conclusion.  The remaining two, including the CIA, have yet to reach a conclusion.

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