Latest report is based on analysis of samples collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the first human cases of COVID-19 were found in late 2019 in China.
International scientists who examined previously unavailable genetic data from samples collected at a market close to where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected in China have said they found suggestions the pandemic originated from animals, not a lab.
Other experts have not yet verified their analysis, which also has not appeared so far in a peer-reviewed journal. How the coronavirus first started sickening people remains uncertain.
“These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important to moving us closer to that answer,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a Friday press briefing.
He criticised China for not sharing the genetic information earlier, adding that “this data could have and should have been shared three years ago.”
The samples were collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan after the first human cases of COVID-19 were found in late 2019.
Tedros said the genetic sequences were uploaded to the world's biggest public virus database in late January by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention; the data have since been removed from the database.
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'The strongest evidence'
A French biologist spotted the information by chance while scouring the database and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China and looking into the origins of the coronavirus.
Genetic sequencing data showed that some of the samples, which were known to be positive for the coronavirus, also contained genetic material from raccoon dogs, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus, according to the scientists. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic.
“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus," said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analysing the data.
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Over 3 years into the #COVID19 emergency, too many lives have been lost. Too many people are still suffering, including from #LongCOVID. We'll never stop demanding equitable access to life-saving tools.— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) March 11, 2023
Ray Yip, an epidemiologist and founding member of the US Centers for Disease Control office in China, said that even though the new findings weren’t definitive, they were significant.
“The market environmental sampling data published by China CDC is by far the strongest evidence to support animal origins,” Yip told the AP in an email. He was not connected to the new analysis.
Scientists have been looking for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic since the virus first emerged, but that search has been complicated by factors including the massive surge of human infections in the pandemic's first two years and an increasingly bitter political dispute.
The researchers say their analysis is the first solid indication that there may have been wildlife infected with the coronavirus at the market.
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy had assessed “with low confidence” that the virus had leaked from a lab.
But others in the US intelligence community disagree, believing it more likely it first came from animals. Experts say the true origin of the pandemic may not be known for many years — if ever.
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