International researchers have discovered new genetic material collected at a Chinese market indicating that COVID-19 originated in coronavirus-infected animals.
According to The Atlantic, a team of virologists, genomicists and evolutionary biologists identified raccoon dog DNA that had commingled with the virus from collected samples at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China.
The data was collected from a stall that is known to have been involved in the illegal wildlife trade in early 2020. It shows that raccoon dogs sold at the venue could have been carrying the virus at the end of 2019. This suggests that the animal could have been infected by the virus first before it was passed along to humans.
However, Stephen Goldstein, a virologist who was involved in analyzing the data, noted that while the genetic sequence indicates that wildlife may have been infected with the coronavirus at the market, it is also possible that humans were first to infect the animals.
Goldstein also noted the possibility that humans may have just left traces of the coronavirus near the animals.
On Tuesday, the researchers presented their findings to the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, a group assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) last year.
“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,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday, according to The Associated Press.
Ghebreyesus also criticized and called on China to share more of its COVID-19 research data after the genetic sequences were removed from the world’s biggest public virus database by scientists at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before it was removed, a French biologist was able to share the information with a group of scientists outside of China who were exploring the virus’s origin.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, also cautioned that the analysis did not find any hard evidence that any animals infected humans.
“What this does provide is clues to help us understand what may have happened,” she said. “There’s molecular evidence that animals were sold at Huanan market and that is new information.”
Other experts will verify the analysis, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The sequences will have to be matched to the genetic record of the historic evolution of the COVID-19 virus to see which came first.