Origin of the coronavirus in the market: missing data emerge

Origin from coronavirus to market: missing data emerges

If the never-before-seen genetic data revealed in recent days proves to be correct, it will become even clearer that the Huanan market was indeed the place of origin of the coronavirus. At the same time, suspicions that the Chinese authorities may have provided incomplete information, perhaps so as not to be blamed, for their lax regulation of the trade in live animals will be reinforced. 

What the French researcher Florence Débarre, of the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) discovered on March 4, which she transmitted on March 14 to the commission of the World Health Organization (WHO) set up to study the origin of the pandemic, and which was the subject of a WHO press conference on March 17, these are “ genetic data ” found in the GISAID database. They come from samples taken in and around Huanan Market, in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, in January 2020, immediately after local authorities closed the market due to suspicions already linking it to the outbreak of the virus. viruses. 

The market had been emptied of its animals and cleaned, but the researchers had then collected thousands of “samples” – that is, anything likely to have retained a trace of DNA – by scraping the walls, floors, cages and carts. 

These thousands of analyzes were at the heart of three studies which, released in early 2022, provided the strongest evidence yet that the virus did originate in that market.

However, what is new today is genetic data from this same January 2020 harvest, but which was not part of the batches made public in the wake of last year's studies. And not only does this genetic data not contradict the studies in question, it reinforces them. According to what was said at the press conference on March 17 – and which has not yet been the subject of a published study – several of the samples that contained genetic sequences of coronavirus were observed, a large amount of genetic material from raccoon dogs (raccoon dogs), as well as a few other mammals. 

The raccoon dog is an animal that was on sale in this market and which, for three years, has been one of the suspects: it is one of those animals that could have served as an “intermediary” between the bat coronavirus and that which has become “our” coronavirus. The Atlantic magazine was the first to report the news, on March 16. 

The raccoon dog is not a dog, despite its name, but a close cousin of the fox. It is an animal raised primarily for its fur. China is the main producer: the most recent figures available, from 2014, suggest 14 million furs, or 100 times more than in Europe. 

It comes from East Asia. East. However, it has spread to Europe where it has become an invasive species. 

Also raised for its meat, it is sold in live animal markets, and it was in the Huanan market at least until November 2019, as the genetic data showed – the ones that had been published last year. last year, just like those which, apparently, have just been rediscovered. 

The word “apparently” is de rigueur, because part of the path followed by these data remains mysterious. Chinese researchers associated with one of the three studies published at the beginning of 2022 would, in January 2023, have deposited in GISAID – international database of genetic sequences of viruses – new raw data on these samples collected at the market. On March 4, biologist Florence Débarre therefore noticed the presence of these new data. Alerted to this, some of the biologists and virologists behind last year's studies dove into these data, to confirm that they were indeed unpublished. They say they then contacted their Chinese colleagues to find out more. The data would then have been removed from GISAID, without it seems to be known by whom. 

Joined by the journal Scienceon March 16, Chinese biologist George Gao replied that the genetic sequences contain “nothing new. It was said that there was illegal trade in animals and that is why this market was immediately closed. » 

As for the researchers interviewed by The Atlantic, they did not say more, pending the publication of their complete results. 

American virologist Jeremy Kamil, who was not involved in this research, commented on March 16 in the New York Timesthat even if we cannot speak of definitive proof, “ it puts the spotlight back on the illegal trade in animals ”. 

These data do not indeed prove that it is market that the virus was first transmitted to humans. But at the very least, they confirm that raccoon dogs left their genetic signature in the same place as the coronavirus. It's a crucial piece of the puzzle, say scientists interviewed by The Atlantic reporter. again — to more transparency in the sharing of information, the only way to overcome this pandemic — and the next ones. “These data do not provide a definitive answer,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on March 17. But any missing evidence must “be shared with the international community immediately. This data could and should have been shared three years ago. » 

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