The World Health Organisation is criticising China for allegedly witholding key data that Covid originates from raccoon dogs sold at a market in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Gene sequences of animals from the market were put online in January, but disappeared once experts offered to collaborate on their analysis with their Chinese counterparts, The New York Times reports.
“These data could have – and should have – been shared three years ago,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said during a Friday news briefing. “We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data, and to conduct the necessary investigations and share the results. Understanding how the pandemic began remains both a moral and scientific imperative.”
The data in question, collected in early 2020 after an intial cluster of cases around the market, shows the DNA of raccoon dogs mingled with the virus, suggesting the illegally sold animals may have been the host for the coronavirus before it jumped to humans.
“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus,” Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analyzing the data, told The Associated Press. “If you were to go and do environmental sampling in the aftermath of a zoonotic spillover event … this is basically exactly what you would expect to find.”
Since the first cases of Covid began spreading in 2019, scientists have been searching to pinpoint the exact origin of the disease, though definite answers have been elusive.
Most publicly available evidence points to the virus crossing over into humans in or near the market in Wuhan.
“To be clear, all the evidence available for scrutiny points to the pandemic originating from transmission from live animals to humans — zoonotic spillover — at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China,” virologist Angela Rasmussen, who published one of the major studies into the disease’s origins in 2022, wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month.
However, the so-called “lab leak” theory, that Covid originated from an accidental release in a nearby lab studying coronaviruses, has gained traction in some corners.
The Department of Energy and FBI both believe the disease spilled out of a Chinese lab, though neither agency has turned their evidence for this claim over to the public for analysis, and neither has more than “low” to “moderate” confidence in the finding.