New evidence links raccoon dogs to the origin of COVID

Genetic material collected at a Chinese market near where the first human cases of COVID-19 were identified shows the DNA of what are known as raccoon dogs mixed with the virus. This, according to international experts, adds evidence to the theory that the virus originated in animals, and not in a laboratory. Raccoon dogs, also known as ‘tanuki’ onuk, are raccoons, but they come from the dog family.

“These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic started, but every part of it is important in getting us closer to the answer,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.

But how the coronavirus emerged remains unclear. Many scientists believe it most likely passed from animals to humans at a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, as many other viruses have in the past. But Wuhan is home to several laboratories involved in collecting and studying coronaviruses, which has fueled theories, which scientists say are plausible, that the virus may have emerged from one of them.

The new findings do not answer the questions and they have not been formally reviewed by other experts or published in a scientific journal.

Mr Tedros criticized China for not sharing genetic information earlier, saying at a news conference that the data should have been shared three years ago.

The samples were collected in early 2020 from surfaces in the Huanan Seafood Market, located in Wuhan, where the first human cases of COVID-19 were found in late 2019.

Mr Tedros said the genetic sequences were only recently uploaded to the world’s largest virus database by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

They were then removed, but not before a French biologist chanced upon the information and shared it with a group of scientists based outside of China who are investigating the origins of the coronavirus.

The data, according to scientists, shows that some of the positive samples for COVID, collected from a stable known for the wildlife trade, also contained genes from raccoon dogs, indicating that the animals may have been infected with the virus. The findings were first reported in The Atlantic magazine.

Raccoon dogs, named as such because of their raccoon-like faces, are often bred for their fur and sold for meat in animal markets across China. Ray Yip, an epidemiologist and founding member of the US Centers for Disease Control’s China office, said the findings are significant, although they are not conclusive.

Efforts to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have been complicated by many factors, including a massive increase in human infections in the first two years of the pandemic and an increasingly bitter political dispute.

It took experts more than 10 years to determine the animal origin of the SARS virus.

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