The existence of the new data was revealed by the Atlantic earlier this week, in an article reporting that the newly-discovered samples showed the virus was present in creatures for sale there near the very beginning of the pandemic:
A new analysis of genetic sequences collected from the market shows that raccoon dogs being illegally sold at the venue could have been carrying and possibly shedding the virus at the end of 2019. It’s some of the strongest support yet, experts told me, that the pandemic began when SARS-CoV-2 hopped from animals into humans, rather than in an accident among scientists experimenting with viruses….
The genetic sequences were pulled out of swabs taken in and near market stalls around the pandemic’s start. They represent the first bits of raw data that researchers outside of China’s academic institutions and their direct collaborators have had access to. A few weeks ago, the data appeared on an open-access genomic database called GISAID, after being quietly posted by researchers affiliated with the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. By almost pure happenstance, scientists in Europe, North America, and Australia spotted the sequences, downloaded them, and began an analysis.
The samples were already known to be positive for the coronavirus, and had been scrutinized before by the same group of Chinese researchers who uploaded the data to GISAID. But that prior analysis, released as a preprint publication in February 2022, asserted that “no animal host of SARS-CoV-2 can be deduced….” The new analysis, led by Kristian Andersen, Edward Holmes, and Michael Worobey — three prominent researchers who have been looking into the virus’s roots — shows that that may not be the case. Within about half a day of downloading the data from GISAID, the trio and their collaborators discovered that several market samples that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 were also coming back chock-full of animal genetic material — much of which was a match for the common raccoon dog. Because of how the samples were gathered, and because viruses can’t persist by themselves in the environment, the scientists think that their findings could indicate the presence of a coronavirus-infected raccoon dog in the spots where the swabs were taken….
The new analysis builds on extensive previous research that points to the market as the source of the earliest major outbreak of SARS-CoV-2: Many of the earliest known COVID-19 cases of the pandemic were clustered roughly in the market’s vicinity. And the virus’s genetic material was found in many samples swabbed from carts and animal-processing equipment at the venue, as well as parts of nearby infrastructure, such as storehouses, sewage wells, and water drains. Raccoon dogs, creatures commonly bred for sale in China, are also already known to be one of many mammal species that can easily catch and spread the coronavirus. All of this left one main hole in the puzzle to fill: clear-cut evidence that raccoon dogs and the virus were in the exact same spot at the market, close enough that the creatures might have been infected and, possibly, infectious.
That’s what the new analysis provides. Think of it as finding the DNA of an investigation’s main suspect at the scene of the crime.
The article also notes that the genetic sequences “also vanished from the database shortly after the international team of researchers notified the Chinese researchers of their preliminary findings, without explanation.” And it adds that all along China has “vehemently” fought the theory that Covid-19 originated from live animals being sold at Wuhan market. Although “in June 2021, a team of researchers published a study documenting tens of thousands of mammals for sale in wet markets in Wuhan between 2017 and late 2019, including at Huanan.”
“The animals were kept in largely illegal, cramped, and unhygienic settings — conditions conducive to viral transmission — and among them were more than 1,000 raccoon dogs.” And there’s even photos of raccoon dogs for sale at the market in December of 2019.
More coverage of the newly-discovered data is now appearing in numerous news outlets, including the New York Times, NBC News, ABC News, the Guardian, PBS, and Science.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.