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China sat on evidence for several years that strongly suggests COVID-19 originally came from an animal and which could have changed the global response to the pandemic had it been made public in 2020, a leading coronavirus origins expert says.
In January 2020, workers in protective gear carry a bag containing a giant salamander that was reported to have escaped from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.Credit:ChinaTopix
The newly released data appears to show there were animals in the Wuhan wet market, where the coronavirus first emerged, including raccoon dogs, a species known to be susceptible to COVID-19.
The Chinese government initially denied that the wet market sold wildlife, which fuelled alternative theories about the pandemic’s origin, and undermined the market-origin theory.
But the data suggests raccoon dogs were present in the very spots the Chinese authorities picked up traces of the virus.
“I think you will not get better evidence for a zoonotic origin than this, quite frankly,” says Professor Edward Holmes, a viral evolution expert based at the University of Sydney and author of a report on the new data.
The data, collected by Chinese scientists at the start of the pandemic, raises major questions about what they knew about the true origins of the virus.
“It is inexcusable – I think it’s a bloody scandal,” Holmes says. “The whole last three years would have been completely different if we had this data.
“The question we need to ask ourselves is what was going on? Where was this data? How is it, three years later, it suddenly appears? This is a massive question.
“I’m bloody furious about it, to put it frankly.”
A boy rides his bicycle over the fur of raccoon dogs at a fur market in Chongfu township, Zhejiang province, China.Credit:Reuters
When COVID-19 emerged in December 2019, a number of early cases had obvious and direct links to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
That led Chinese authorities to close and sanitise the market, but not before they collected DNA samples. None of the animal samples they collected tested positive for COVID-19.
But their samples did reveal high levels of COVID-19 on stalls that had been known to sell wildlife. That still seemed to leave a key gap: where were the infected animals?
On March 4 this year, Western scientists noticed a curious upload to a genetics database. It was the raw genetic code from the environmental samples, quietly uploaded by Chinese scientists.
When the Western scientists downloaded the code, they immediately discovered there was far more genetic information than the Chinese had let on.
The samples didn’t just contain genetic code from the virus, but also from humans and animals. Lots of animals. The Chinese had claimed no animals were being sold at the market, but Holmes says the genetic data made it look like “a bloody zoo”.
The data showed a high concentration of COVID-19 in the part of the market known to sell wildlife.
It also showed the presence of raccoon dogs, hedgehogs, porcupines and bamboo rats in that very area.
The genetic data cannot prove that the animals were infected, only that they were in the same spot as the virus. But there was far more animal DNA there than human. Some positive samples contained only animal DNA.
“The correlation would be: it’s most likely an animal, but you can’t prove it because you can’t get the animal,” Holmes says.
The Chinese appear keen to push the theory that humans brought the virus to the market, but Holmes’ team had already shown this was extremely unlikely.
Multiple lineages of the virus were found at the market – suggesting it had come from an animal, not a human – and the market is small and relatively obscure.
It is not clear why the Chinese have been sitting on data showing a likely animal origin for COVID-19, nor why they briefly uploaded it. After Holmes and his team alerted Chinese scientists to the data earlier this month, it was quickly pulled down.
Chinese scientists used the data to publish a paper in 2022 reporting human DNA was present in the samples, and animal data was not. But they either missed or ignored the animal data.
“It is hard to choose sometimes,” says Holmes, “between cock-up and conspiracy.”
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