The World Health Organization called on China to fully share genetic data that may help discern the origins of Covid-19 after it appeared briefly on an international database.
(Bloomberg) — The World Health Organization called on China to fully share genetic data that may help discern the origins of Covid-19 after it appeared briefly on an international database.
A new analysis of specimens collected in January 2020 at a wet market in Wuhan where the initial human infections were detected found evidence of the virus along with large amounts of genetic material from raccoon dogs, according to a group of scientists spanning the US and Europe. The underlying data from Chinese researchers, which some outside experts said bolstered the idea that the virus spilled over from animals at the market, was subsequently removed. The Atlantic first reported news of the evolving research.
The data could have and should have been shared three years ago, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday at a press conference.
“We need to look at the full picture,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s top epidemiologist on Covid-19, said at a press briefing Friday. “The big issue right now is that this data exists and that it is not readily available to the international community.”
Researchers and politicians around the world have vehemently disagreed over whether the virus originated in animals that spread it to humans or whether it accidentally leaked from a high-security lab that worked with similar pathogens in Wuhan. China has resisted efforts to investigate the pandemic’s origins, and the data may undercut its arguments that the virus was imported from another country.
All hypotheses remain on the table and can’t be ruled out until more information is available, Van Kerkhove said.
Spotting the Data
In early March, Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, stumbled upon recently-uploaded genomic data posted to GISAID, a global scientific consortium that maintains a database of coronavirus sequences. She soon reached out to a group of scientists who had authored papers supporting the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated at a market in Wuhan.
The team immediately analyzed data from samples taken from the market, which were submitted to GISAID by Chinese scientists earlier this month, according to Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, who has contributed to the analysis. What the team founded stunned him.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to identify a genetic fingerprint of the virus and a potential intermediate host in the exact same place,” he said. “We have a significant amount of data that’s unambiguously from raccoon dogs. It’s completely consistent and expected from what you’d see in a zoonotic spillover event.”
The mingling of DNA from the virus and from raccoon dogs is a strong indication that the mammals, reportedly sold live in the food market and known to be susceptible to coronaviruses, were infected, said Dominic Dwyer, a medical virologist and infectious diseases physician who has studied the genesis of the pandemic in China.
“It’s not the ‘eureka’ moment, but it’s a pretty big advance,” said Dwyer, who was part of a joint mission to study Covid’s origins in early 2021. The material was collected in an area of the market where cases were known to have occurred.
“It still doesn’t tell you how did it get into a raccoon dog, or how did it get into a human, but it’s important circumstantial evidence,” said Dwyer, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Sydney.
Goldstein said a full analysis of the data is expected to publish imminently.
The latest findings advance efforts to decipher the deadly contagion’s creation story, which have been frustrated by a geopolitical blame game. Some groups, including the US Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, support the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a Chinese lab.
“This will give scientists a fair degree of confidence in what happened,” Goldstein said, “but none of us are under the illusion that this will settle the broader debate.”
The data do give proof that animals including raccoon dogs were in the Wuhan market, the WHO’s Van Kerkhove said. She said other conclusions are for the researchers to make.
Read More: Delayed Wuhan Report Adds Crucial Detail to Covid Origin Puzzle
The Chinese scientists who uploaded the genomic data to GISAID concluded last year in a draft of a study that there was no evidence of infected animals. The new analysis of the same data by non-Chinese scientists found evidence of the virus and animal genetic material, much of which was a match for the common raccoon dog, Goldstein said.
The records initially submitted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but then removed, are currently being updated with newer, additional data as part of review of the manuscript that’s been submitted for publication, GISAID said in a statement. While existing records may be temporarily invisible while they are being updated, the group doesn’t delete records, it said.
Goldstein said the GISAID upload disappeared after his peers reached out to Chinese researchers involved in producing the data. “We were surprised to see it taken down,” he said.
Dwyer and his colleagues recommended studies to understand how, where and when Covid-19 emerged have stalled and may now be too late to yield definitive answers, he said. Asked for comment on the latest findings, China said only that it would continue to cooperate in global origins tracing studies.
“In the global science community, there are many clues pointing to multiple origins of the virus,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Friday. “We hope information could be shared with China on the outcomes of origins studies across the world.”
–With assistance from Philip Glamann.
(Updates with scientists’ comments starting in second section.)
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