WHO urges China to launch information on raccoon canines in Wuhan market

A man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against Covid-19 walks past a Communist Party flag in Wuhan, China, March 31, 2020.

Noël Celis | AFP | Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Friday urged China to release new data linking the origins of the Covid pandemic to animal samples in the Wuhan market, after the country recently halted research.

The agency said China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention uploaded data to the public virus tracking database GISAID in late January relating to samples taken at Wuhan’s Huanan Market in 2020.

Researchers from several countries downloaded and analyzed the data before removing it, presenting their findings to the WHO last weekend. The researchers found molecular evidence that raccoon dogs and other animals susceptible to Covid were being sold at the market, consistent with hypotheses about the virus spilling over from a wild animal to humans.

The new data doesn’t provide a conclusive answer as to how the pandemic began, “but it does provide more clues” to a potential host of the virus that transmitted it to humans, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19 . She urged China to release the data publicly so the WHO and other researchers can further analyze it and get closer to understanding the origins of a pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide.

“The big problem right now is that this data exists and is not readily available to the international community,” said Van Kerkhove. “First and foremost, this is absolutely critical, not to mention that it should have been available years earlier, but that data needs to be made available for people to access, analyze and discuss with one another. “

The WHO call comes as the debate over the origin of Covid intensifies. Researchers bicker over competing theories and governments stake out positions on what to do next.

The New York Times reported the new data earlier Thursday. Researchers told the Times that starting in January 2020, the molecular data was collected from swabs taken from walls, floors, metal cages and carts in and around the market. At that point, the Chinese government had already closed the market on suspicion of a link to the Covid outbreak.

The researchers added that large amounts of the data were no match for raccoon dogs.

Van Kerkhove stressed that the data does not necessarily prove that a raccoon dog or other animal was infected with the virus and transmitted it to humans. But she said it is found that animals capable of transmitting Covid have been sold at the market which is ‘new information’.

It is not known where the animals came from and whether they were wild or domesticated, she added. According to Van Kerkhove, the WHO is pushing for studies to be conducted in other markets in Wuhan and across China. It also looks for serological tests, which measure antibodies, for people who have worked in the markets.

Van Kerkhove also noted that “all the hypotheses” about how Covid entered the human population are still on the table. She said further investigation is needed into possible biosecurity breaches by a lab or whether the virus originated in a bat before spreading to humans.

We don’t have all the information in front of us and we need to be able to look at all these different hypotheses. We have to look at all the data that is needed to evaluate each and every one of them so we can say that this may have happened, this may not have happened,” she said.

She added that the WHO “will not be able to remove various hypotheses” until China uploads its data again.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said earlier this month that the FBI believes Covid most likely originated in a Chinese government-controlled laboratory.

In February, the Department of Energy assessed “with low confidence” that Covid had leaked from a lab.

About 44% of US adults believe the virus leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, according to a Morning Consult poll released last month, while 26% say it passed naturally from animals to humans .

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