IIn another twist to the ongoing search for the origin of COVID-19, an international group of researchers came across new genetic material that had been posted to a public scientific database and then abruptly deleted.
As first reported in the AtlanticIn early March, Florence Debarre, an evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Scientific Research, was searching the public database GISAID, where scientists upload the genetic sequences of pathogens they study. On the site, she found footage of samples taken in January 2020 from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, shortly after the market closed due to fears that the COVID-19 virus 19 comes from animals sold there.
Debarre, along with researchers from the United States and Australia, studied the genetic sequences in greater depth and found that one could be traced back to a cart from a stall which one of the scientists from the team remembered a visit to the market in 2014, according to New York Times. At that time, raccoon dogs were kept on a cart in which their cages were placed above cages housing birds, a configuration that infectious disease experts know can promote the spread of viruses from species to species. the other. The sample taken from the cart in 2020 also contained SARS-CoV-2.
In February 2022, Chinese officials published a summary results of swabs collected in 2020 from air, surfaces and animals in the market, although not all of the genetic sequences of these samples have been uploaded to GISAID. This report found no viruses among the 18 animal species sampled, although the virus is prevalent in environmental samples, such as air and on surfaces, suggesting that people harbor the virus and potentially spread it on the market.
The scientific and political communities have long been divided on whether SARS-CoV-2 came from animals and spread to humans, or whether the virus was created – intentionally or accidentally – by researchers at the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology and then spread to animals. and people around the world. In the latest information report on the matter, the U.S. Department of Energy leaned toward the lab leak hypothesis, but classified its conclusion as “low confidence.” Four other US government groups and the US National Intelligence Council determined that the virus likely originated in animals and had spread to humans, but their assessments were also of low or moderate confidence, leaving open the question of whether how COVID-19 started.
The new samples Debarre found may help provide answers. But soon after she and other scientists contacted the Chinese team that had written the original report, the genetic sequences disappeared from GISAID.
During a March 17 press conferenceWorld Health Organization COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove called on China to make the deleted data available to scientists. “The big problem right now is that this data exists and it’s not readily available to the international community,” she said. In its first survey, the World Health Organization suggested that the virus likely spread from bats to humans, although the organization earlier this year scaled down the next step in its planned analysis, citing difficulties in obtaining access to data from Chinese health authorities. “We need to look at all the data necessary to assess each of these [hypotheses] so that we can say ‘this may have happened, this may not have happened.’
Although the latest genetic evidence has found animal and viral genes in the same location, it still does not point to an infected animal or the genetic sequence of an animal that shows evidence of virus infection. But the fact that raccoon dog DNA and the genetic material of the virus existed in such close proximity means it’s possible that SARS-CoV-2 infected raccoon dogs and then spread to humans who frequented the market. .
The footage found by Debarre suggests that there is more data from these initial tests on the market than Chinese authorities have not fully disclosed or analyzed. This incompleteness leaves the mystery of the origin of COVID-19 unsolved.
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