Saturday, 1 April 2023

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Raccoon dogs and the mystery of COVID-19’s origins

Raccoon dogs and the mystery of COVID-19's origins

The World Health Organization has obtained information pointing to the presence of raccoon dogs—a species suspected by some of initially spreading COVID-19 to humans—at the Wuhan market tied to the virus’s early days, officials said Friday.

Raccoon dogs—known to be susceptible to COVID-19, and to spread viruses to humans—are thought to have been sold illegally at the market. They could be the missing link in the chain of transmission from bats, presumably, to people, experts in the zoonotic transmission camp say.

But WHO officials Friday cautioned against assumptions, saying that while the information is an important piece of the proverbial jigsaw puzzle, “it does not determine what the picture shows”—and that a lab leak can’t be ruled out.

“The more pieces you have in the right place, the more you start to see an image,” Dr. Michael Ryan, the organization’s executive director of health emergencies, said at a news conference, referencing the puzzle analogy. 

“You’re never really sure what you’re building until you put a piece in the context of all the other pieces,” he said. But “your level of confidence grows as you put it together.”

No definitive answer

The WHO on Sunday was made aware of data from samples taken at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan during the early days of the pandemic, before the market was shut down. That data been published to GISAID—an international research database that tracks changes in COVID and the flu virus—by officials with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in late January, but was recently taken down, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, WHO director general, said at the news conference.

The knowledge triggered a Tuesday meeting of WHO’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, which is investigating the virus’s origins. At the meeting, international scientists who had obtained the data before it was removed and analyzed it presented their findings. Chinese CDC officials also presented, at the WHO’s request.

The new information provides no definitive answers as to the pandemic’s origins, Ghebreyesu cautioned. “But every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer.”

All data related to studying the novel virus’s origins “needs to be shared with the international community,” he said. “The data could have—and should have—been shared three years ago.”

The data shows only that…

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