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Three years after the fact, Chinese scientists have revealed that they have significant data that may shed light on the origins of the novel coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) that first appeared in Wuhan, China and subsequently spread around the world.
“These data could have—and should have—been shared 3 years ago,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data, and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results.”
On March 12, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) was made aware of new sequences of SARS-CoV-2 and metagenomics data associated with samples collected from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, in January 2020. This data had become available on GISAID for a short period of time before access was restricted to allow for further updates by China CDC. After discussions with Chinese colleagues, it was explained that the genomic data would be used for an expected update to an existing preprint, which was in the process of being re-submitted for publication to Nature by China CDC.
According to Science, in the WHO’s press conference,
Tedros complained that the China market data were recently taken down. ([Florence] Débarre says that happened after she and others notified Gao that they had found the sequences and wanted to collaborate on an analysis. Gao did not respond to Science’s attempt to clarify what happened.) “These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer,” Tedros said. “And every piece of data relating to studying the origins of COVID-19 needs to be shared with the international community immediately.”
To gauge the significance of this data and its analyses, WHO organized a meeting on March 14, 2023, with all members of the SAGO (Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens) and invited researchers from China CDC to present their updated analysis of the data. Researchers who had accessed the data from GISAID were also invited to present their analysis of the temporarily released sequences.
The presentations indicated that there were new data available from the market, including metagenomic data of environmental samples from various stalls and wastewater collection sites collected as early as January 2020. Analyses of the data suggested that some samples contained not only SARS-CoV-2 sequences but also human DNA, as well as mitochondrial DNA of several animal species, including some that are known to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. These animals included wild raccoon dogs, Malaysian porcupines, and bamboo rats, among others, in SARS-CoV-2 positive environmental samples.
The findings suggested that animals were present at the market shortly before it was cleared on January 1, 2020, as part of public health measures taken by Chinese authorities. These results provided potential leads to identifying intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV-2 and potential sources of human infections in the market.
According to the Chinese authors’ preprint (Liu et al 2022), of 1380 samples collected from the environment and animals within the market in early 2020, 73 of 923 environmental samples tested positive for SARS-CoV-2-specific RT-qPCR, from various stalls and sewerage systems in and around the market, but no virus was detected in 457 animal samples tested. However, the presence of high levels of raccoon dog mitochondrial DNA in the metagenomics data from environmental samples identified in the new analysis suggested that raccoon dogs and other animals may have been present before the market was cleaned as part of the public health intervention.
Historical photographic evidence provided showed raccoon dogs and other animals were sold at specific stalls in the past. While this did not provide conclusive evidence as to the intermediate host or origins of the virus, the data provided further evidence of the presence of susceptible animals at the market that may have been a source of human infections.
SAGO continued to evaluate any and all scientific data shared by Chinese and other researchers worldwide. SAGO encouraged all data related to the study of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 to be made available immediately for robust and comprehensive review.
As mentioned in SAGO’s preliminary report, the group strongly recommended that researchers in China investigate the upstream sources of the animals and animal products present in the Huanan market just before its closure and the removal of all animal products on January 1, 2020. Furthermore, SAGO encouraged all available sequencing and metagenomic data to be made public on GISAID or any other sequence database, and the preprints that were in review to be shared as soon as possible so that the scientific community had the opportunity to analyze them further. In addition, SAGO encouraged researchers using this data to collaborate and engage with Chinese researchers.
In an interview with Science, Maria Van Kerkhove stressed, “We’re pushing for more information through SAGO. We were told that there were additional surveys that were done, including animals that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. For them to tell us that not a single animal has tested positive? There are mink farms there, the raccoon dogs, the civets, there are huge numbers of animals there. It calls into question their credibility, which I’ve said to them as well. It is beyond infuriating and frustrating to be in this position and learning later that these data exists, learning that this analysis could have been done in March 2020, if we had had an environment in which collaboration could have taken place. We still don’t have that. And that is scary as hell.”
In late February, the U.S. Department of Energy weighed into the Sars-CoV-2 origins debate. According to a newly updated classified intelligence report, the US Department of Energy assessed that the Covid-19 pandemic most likely came from a laboratory leak in China. The report suggested that the department has “low confidence” that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
The intelligence community has been split on the matter for years, with some agencies suggesting that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans naturally in the wild, while others assessed that the pandemic was the result of a laboratory accident.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has criticized the claims and urged an end to “smearing China.”
WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.