Raccoon dogs played role in Covid pandemic origin, new data show

Scientists say new information may be evidence that Covid-19 was spread from animals to humans

Scientists say new data suggests the Covid-19 pandemic may have originated from animals, not a laboratory. AP
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The World Health Organisation on Friday said new genetics data on the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic is “another piece of the jigsaw” as debates continue over a lab leak theory.

Analysis of genetic sequences collected from a market in Wuhan, China — where it is widely believed Covid-19 made the leap to infect humans in late 2019 — suggests that raccoon dogs could have been carrying the new virus at the time.

US news magazine The Atlantic first reported the analysis with experts claiming “it's some of the strongest support” for evidence that the virus was spread naturally from animals to humans.

The WHO says the data was collected by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in early 2020, when authorities shut down the market, but the evidence didn't appear on a global genomic database until this March.

“Every piece of data relating to studying the origins of Covid-19, needs to be shared with the international community immediately,” said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a briefing on Friday, requesting China to share more information.

“These data could have — and should have — been shared three years ago.”

People were able to access the data before it was taken down on the platform, leading to The Atlantic report.

It featured the work of three researchers who found that the samples uploaded to the database were Covid-positive and included animal genetic material, specifically matching DNA for raccoon dogs.

“This is another piece of the jigsaw,” Mike Ryan, director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, also said at the briefing.

The new evidence does not concretely show that raccoon dogs — an animal related to foxes ― at the Wuhan market were infectious and sickened humans, or even that humans infected the raccoon dogs there.

The evidence has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and other experts have not corroborated the global research team's work.

However, scientists say that the new information is evidence consistent with the theory that the virus spread to humans by way of a wild animal.

“These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer,” Dr Tedros said.

It brings a new angle to the evolving debate about the origin of Covid-19, which includes a theory, increasingly accepted by US intelligence agencies, that the virus leaked from a laboratory near the Wuhan market. Scientists say finding the origin will help battle Covid, as well as aid future pandemic prevention.

Since the novel coronavirus was first discovered more than three years ago, more than 675 million people have been infected and at least seven million have died of Covid-19.

Updated: March 17, 2023, 7:26 PM