YoIn another twist in the ongoing search for where COVID-19 originated, an international group of researchers stumbled upon new genetic material that had been published in a public scientific database and then abruptly removed.
as first reported in the AtlanticIn early March, Florence Debarre, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, was searching the public GISAID database, where scientists upload the genetic sequences of the pathogens they study. At the site, she found sequences of samples collected in January 2020 from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, shortly after the market closed due to concerns that the COVID-19 virus might have originated in animals. sold there.
Debarre, along with researchers from the US and Australia, further studied the genetic sequences and found that one could be traced back to a stall cart that one of the team’s scientists remembered from a visit to the market in 2014. according to the New York Times. At the News-thread, the raccoon dogs were kept in a cart in which their cages were placed on top of cages housing birds, a setup that infectious disease experts know can promote the spread of viruses from one species to another. The sample taken from the car in 2020 also contained SARS-CoV-2.
In February 2022, Chinese officials issued a summary results of swabs taken in 2020 from air, surfaces and animals on the market, although not all genetic sequences from those samples were uploaded to GISAID. That report found no virus among the 18 animal species sampled, although the virus was prevalent in environmental samples, such as air and surfaces, suggesting that people were harboring the virus and potentially spreading it in the marketplace.
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, either intentionally or accidentally, by researchers at the nearby Institute of Virology in Wuhan and then spread to animals. and people from all over the world. In the most recent intelligence report on the subject, the US Department of Energy leaned toward the laboratory 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 came from animals and jumped to people, but their assessments were also of low or moderate confidence, leaving open the question of how COVID-19 started.
The new samples Debarre found may help provide some answers. But shortly after she and other scientists contacted the Chinese team that wrote the original report, the genetic sequences disappeared from GISAID.
During a March 17 Press conference, Maria Van Kerkhove, technical director of COVID-19 at the World Health Organization, called on China to make the deleted data available to scientists. “The big problem right now is that this data exists and it is not available to the international community,” she said. In the first investigation of her, the World Health Organization He suggested that the virus probably spread from bats to people, although the organization earlier this year reduced the next stage of its planned analysis, citing challenges in gaining access to data from Chinese health authorities. “We need to see all the data that is needed to evaluate each of these [hypotheses] so that we can say ‘this may have happened, this may not have happened’”.
While the latest genetic evidence found animal and viral genes in the same place, it still does not point to an infected animal, or the genetic sequence of an animal that shows evidence of infection with the virus. But the fact that the raccoon dog’s DNA and the genetic material of the virus existed in such close proximity means that it’s possible that SARS-CoV-2 infected raccoon dogs and then jumped to humans who frequented the market.
The sequence Debarre found suggests that there is more data from those initial tests on the market that Chinese authorities have not fully disclosed or analyzed. That incompleteness leaves the mystery of where COVID-19 originated.
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