Science: New trail to the origin of Corona: Raccoon dogs as carriers?

According to the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, preliminary results of a new genetic study support the assumption of a natural origin of Sars-CoV-2.

Science: New trail to the origin of Corona: Raccoon dogs as carriers?

According to the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, preliminary results of a new genetic study support the assumption of a natural origin of Sars-CoV-2. The analysis, which has not yet been independently verified, brings raccoon dogs on the market in Wuhan, China, into play as potential carriers of the corona virus.

"The preliminary result strongly underpins my assumption that it originated in raccoon dogs or other carnivores (flesh eaters) such as vibrating cats, which has been expressed since the beginning of the pandemic," Drosten told the German Press Agency (dpa).

According to a report in The Atlantic magazine, scientists had stumbled across previously unknown Chinese data from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which has been linked to the first coronavirus outbreak. The genetic sequences were obtained from swabs taken at and near market stalls at the beginning of the pandemic. A few days ago, researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added them to the freely accessible "Gisaid" genome database, where they were discovered and analyzed almost by accident by scientists in Europe, North America and Australia.

Market samples with animal genetic material

According to "The Atlantic", an evaluation led by virus experts Kristian Andersen, Edward Holmes and Michael Worobey showed that several market samples that had tested positive for Sars-CoV-2 also contained animal genetic material - often from raccoon dogs, a common species on fur farms kept fox relatives. According to the report, the scientists conclude from the type of sampling, among other things, that a raccoon dog infected with the corona virus could have been in the affected areas.

"These are preliminary evaluations of Chinese raw data. A comprehensive study by the scientists actually involved in the investigation will certainly follow soon," explained Drosten.

The new findings are likely to rekindle the debate about the origin of the corona virus. There's also the theory of a lab glitch as a possible origin.

The theory that the coronavirus jumped from wild animals to humans traded at the Wuhan market in 2019 has been floating around since the pandemic began. One reason was the existing knowledge about the first Sars virus, which was also the case, explained Drosten. "Of course you have to take any theories about the origin of the virus seriously, but a natural origin from one of the animal groups mentioned was the most likely explanation from the start."

Not perfect proof, but important step

The fact that the virus and mammalian genetic material now analyzed was so intimately mixed - enough to be extracted from a single swab - is not perfect evidence, Emory University virologist Seema Lakdawala is quoted as saying in The Atlantic . It is an important step, but does not have the same value as if Sars-CoV-2 had been detected directly from a raccoon dog or in the virus sample from a mammal sold in Wuhan at the time of the outbreak.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday: "These data do not provide us with a definitive answer as to how the pandemic started, but any information is important in order to get closer to that answer."

The WHO chief criticized China's information policy. "This data could have been made available three years ago, and it should have been made available. We again call on China to be transparent by making data available and we call on China to conduct the necessary investigations and about to report the results."

"Amazing that this data was only collected now"

The material that was temporarily available on "Gisaid" has now been deleted by China - why, you have to ask the Chinese CDC, said Corona expert Maria van Kerkhove in Geneva. According to them, the data proves that raccoon dogs were trafficked in the market. This had previously been assumed, but never confirmed. Remain open where the animals came from, whether they were farm animals or wild animals. It should also be emphasized that the virus was not detected in an animal itself.

"It's a bit surprising that this data was only collected now," said Fabian Leendertz from the Helmholtz Institute for One Health in Greifswald. Testing environmental samples for the genetic makeup of animals in the area in question is actually a routine procedure. "What is missing now is to look further back - are there still infected intermediate hosts? Where did the raccoon dogs (or other susceptible animals that were traded there) possibly get the virus from?"