Could this cuddly looking creature have caused the coronavirus pandemic?
Three years after COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, the scientific community remains bitterly divided over the origins of the virus, despite the growing consensus that it was manufactured inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during gain-of-function research.
But a new analysis of genetic material from the infamous Wuhan wet market points to a new unlikely culprit — the raccoon dog.
Analysis of genetic sequences collected from the market in January 2020 shows that raccoon dogs being illegally sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market may have been carrying and shedding the virus at the outbreak of the pandemic, according to a wild new report in the Atlantic.
However, researchers who conducted the analysis have expressed caution about their own findings, which do not conclusively prove that raccoon dogs were the original host of the virus. The findings have also been met with derision by some politicians and pundits, with one saying the racoon dog hypothesis is nothing more than a distraction from growing evidence that the virus leaked from a lab.
Meanwhile, the genetic sequences were reportedly pulled out of swabs taken in and near market stalls shortly after they were shut down by Chinese authorities after the initial spread of the virus.
“This really strengthens the case for a natural origin,” Seema Lakdawala, a
virologist at Emory University, told the outlet.
Raccoon dogs are small, heavyset mammals native to East Asia and are most closely related to foxes. The animals had reportedly been sold illegally at the wet market for years.
Analyses of genetic sequences collected from the market in January 2020 suggests that raccoon dogs being illegally sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market may have been carrying and shedding the virus at the outset of the pandemic, according to a wild new report in the Atlantic. AFP via Getty Images
The genetic sequences were posted to a database called GISAID by researchers affiliated with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week.
They were soon spotted by researchers who downloaded them from the database and began an analysis. Days later, the genetic sequences were mysteriously pulled down from GISAID without explanation.
The analysis of the genetic sequences has been led by Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California; Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia; and Michael Worobey, a virologist at the University of Arizona.
According to the Atlantic, the trio found that “several surfaces in and around one stall at the market, including a cart and a defeathering machine, produced virus-positive samples that also contained genetic material from raccoon dog.”
It is the first time the finger has been pointed at the fox-like animal as a possible host of the virus — although the researchers have expressed caution about their own findings.
“Do we know the intermediate host was raccoon dogs? No,” Andersen bluntly told the Atlantic. “Is it high up on my list of potential hosts? Yes, but it’s definitely not the only one.”
“Do we know the intermediate host was raccoon dogs? No,” researcher Kristian Andersen told the Atlantic. “Is it high up on my list of potential hosts? Yes, but it’s definitely not the only one.”Getty Images/iStockphoto
Raccoon dogs were being sold illegally at the Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market at the outbreak of the pandemic. AP Photo/Dake Kang
Indeed, as the New York Times reports of the research: “The jumbling together of genetic material from the virus and the animal does not prove that a raccoon dog itself was infected. And even if a raccoon dog had been infected, it would not be clear that the animal had spread the virus to people.”
Meanwhile, the possible new theory has been met with outright derision by some officials and social media pundits.
They told us #COVID went from a bat, to a pangolin, to now, a RACCOON DOG.
But if you think it came from a lab, you’re a conspiracy theorist.
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) March 17, 2023
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted: “They told us #COVID went from a bat, to a pangolin, to now, a RACCOON DOG. But if you think it came from a lab, you’re a conspiracy theorist.”
“Too coincidental they come out with that info AFTER the US Dept of Energy leaning towards lab leak and Congress begins hearings on origin of Covid. It’s a DISTRACTION,” another user stated.
There is growing consensus that the virus accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. REUTERS
Indeed, the emergence of this new theory follows a classified report from the US Department of Energy declaring — with “low confidence” — that the virus behind COVID-19 most likely leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
That assertion comes more than a year after the FBI concluded a lab accident in China was the origin of the disease, which has killed more than 6.8 million people around the world, including 1.1 million in the US.
The FBI’s decision was made with “moderate confidence” and remains the bureau’s opinion.