Beijing, March 18
Genetic material collected at a Chinese market near where the first human cases of covid-19 were identified show raccoon dog DNA comingled with the virus, adding evidence to the theory that the virus originated from animals, not from a lab, international experts say.
"These data do not provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important to moving us closer to that answer," World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.
How the coronavirus emerged remains unclear. Many scientists believe it most likely jumped from animals to people, as many other viruses have in the past, at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. But Wuhan is home to several labs involved in collecting and studying coronaviruses, fuelling theories scientists say are plausible that the virus may have leaked from one.
The new findings do not settle the question, and they have not been formally reviewed by other experts or published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Tedros criticised China for not sharing the genetic information earlier, telling a press briefing that "this data could have and should have been shared three years ago".
The samples were collected from surfaces at the Huanan seafood market in early 2020 in Wuhan, where the first human cases of covid-19 were found in late 2019.
Tedros said the genetic sequences were recently uploaded to the world's biggest public virus database by scientists at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
They were then removed, but not before a French biologist spotted the information by chance and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China that's looking into the origins of the coronavirus.
The data show that some of the covid-positive samples collected from a stall known to be involved in the wildlife trade also contained raccoon dog genes, indicating the animals may have been infected by the virus, according to the scientists. Their analysis was first reported in The Atlantic.
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