New COVID Origins Data Point to Raccoon Dogs in China Market

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, sits closed in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, sits closed in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)
TT

New COVID Origins Data Point to Raccoon Dogs in China Market

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, sits closed in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, sits closed in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)

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, suggesting the pandemic may have originated from animals, not a lab, international experts say.

Other experts have not yet verified their analysis, which has yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. How the coronavirus began sickening people remains uncertain. The sequences will have to be matched to the genetic record of how the virus evolved to see which came first.

"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 Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday.

He criticized 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 Center 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.

"There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus," said Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who was involved in analyzing the data. "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."

Ray Yip, an epidemiologist and founding member of the US Centers for Disease Control office in China, said the findings are significant, even though they aren't definitive.

"The market environmental sampling data published by China CDC is by far the strongest evidence to support animal origins," Yip told the AP in an email. He was not connected to the new analysis.

WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, cautioned that the analysis did not find the virus within any animal, nor did it 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. The international group also told WHO they found DNA from other animals as well as raccoon dogs in the samples from the seafood market, she added.

"There's molecular evidence that animals were sold at Huanan market and that is new information," Van Kerkhove said.

Efforts to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have been complicated by factors including the massive surge of human infections in the pandemic's first two years and an increasingly bitter political dispute.

It took virus experts more than a dozen years to pinpoint the animal origin of SARS, a related virus.

Goldstein and his colleagues say their analysis is the first solid indication that there may have been wildlife infected with the coronavirus at the market. But it is also possible that humans brought the virus to the market and infected the raccoon dogs, or that infected humans simply happened to leave traces of the virus near the animals.

After scientists in the group contacted the China CDC, they say, the sequences were removed from the global virus database. Researchers are puzzled as to why data on the samples collected over three years ago wasn’t made public sooner. Tedros has pleaded with China to share more of its COVID-19 research data.

Gao Fu, the former head of the Chinese CDC and lead author of the Chinese paper, didn’t immediately respond to an Associated Press email requesting comment. But he told Science magazine the sequences are "nothing new. It had been known there was illegal animal dealing and this is why the market was immediately shut down."

Goldstein said his group presented its findings this week to an advisory panel the WHO has tasked with investigating COVID-19’s origins.

Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Edinburgh, said it will be crucial to see how the raccoon dogs' genetic sequences match up to what's known about the historic evolution of the COVID-19 virus. If the dogs are shown to have COVID and those viruses prove to have earlier origins than the ones that infected people, "that’s probably as good evidence as we can expect to get that this was a spillover event in the market."

After a weeks-long visit to China to study the pandemic's origins, WHO released a report in 2021 concluding that COVID-19 most probably jumped into humans from animals, dismissing the possibility of a lab origin as "extremely unlikely."

But the UN health agency backtracked the following year, saying "key pieces of data" were still missing. And Tedros has said all hypotheses remain on the table.

The China CDC scientists who previously analyzed the Huanan market samples published a paper as a preprint in February suggesting that humans brought the virus to the market, not animals, implying that the virus originated elsewhere. Their paper didn't mention that animal genes were found in the samples that tested positive.

Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected, is home to several labs involved in collecting and studying coronaviruses, fueling theories that the virus may have leaked from one.

In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy had assessed "with low confidence" that the virus had leaked from a lab. But others in the US intelligence community disagree, believing it more likely it first came from animals. Experts say the true origin of the pandemic may not be known for many years — if ever.



Kate, Princess of Wales, Says She’s Making ‘Good Progress’ in Cancer Treatment

 Britain's Kate, the Princess of Wales, Patron of The Forward Trust visits HMP High Down in Sutton, England, Sept. 12, 2023, to learn about how the charity is supporting those in the criminal justice system to manage and recover from their addictions. (AP)
Britain's Kate, the Princess of Wales, Patron of The Forward Trust visits HMP High Down in Sutton, England, Sept. 12, 2023, to learn about how the charity is supporting those in the criminal justice system to manage and recover from their addictions. (AP)
TT

Kate, Princess of Wales, Says She’s Making ‘Good Progress’ in Cancer Treatment

 Britain's Kate, the Princess of Wales, Patron of The Forward Trust visits HMP High Down in Sutton, England, Sept. 12, 2023, to learn about how the charity is supporting those in the criminal justice system to manage and recover from their addictions. (AP)
Britain's Kate, the Princess of Wales, Patron of The Forward Trust visits HMP High Down in Sutton, England, Sept. 12, 2023, to learn about how the charity is supporting those in the criminal justice system to manage and recover from their addictions. (AP)

The Princess of Wales said Friday she is “making good progress” in her cancer treatment and will attend Saturday’s royal Trooping the Color ceremony, Kate’s first public appearance since her diagnosis.

The 42-year-old wife of Prince William has not made any public appearances this year. She announced in March that she was undergoing chemotherapy for an unspecified form of cancer.

“I am making good progress, but as anyone going through chemotherapy will know, there are good days and bad days,” Kate said in a statement released Friday, adding that she faces “a few more months” of treatment.

“I’m looking forward to attending The King’s Birthday Parade this weekend with my family and hope to join a few public engagements over the summer, but equally knowing I am not out of the woods yet,” Kate said.

The announcement is a significant milestone, but does not mark a return to full-time public duties for Kate.

Trooping the Color, also known as the King’s Birthday Parade, is an annual military parade that marks the monarch’s official birthday in June. King Charles III, who also is being treated for an undisclosed form of cancer, is due to oversee the ceremony, in which troops in full dress uniform parade past the king with their ceremonial flag, or “color.”

Kate is expected to travel in a horse-drawn carriage from Buckingham Palace with the couple’s children — Prince George, 10; Princess Charlotte, 9; and Prince Louis, who is 6 — before watching the ceremony from a building beside the parade ground. She may also join other royals for a traditional Buckingham Palace balcony appearance.

Kate’s announcement in March came after speculation proliferated on social media about her well-being and absence from public view. She has revealed few details about her illness, which was discovered after what she described as major abdominal surgery in January.

In a March video message, Kate said the diagnosis had come as “a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family.”

On Friday Kate thanked members of the public, saying she had been “blown away by all the kind messages of support and encouragement.”

“I am learning how to be patient, especially with uncertainty. Taking each day as it comes, listening to my body, and allowing myself to take this much needed time to heal,” she said. “Thank you so much for your continued understanding, and to all of you who have so bravely shared your stories with me.”

Charles, 75, disclosed his cancer in February, and has recently eased back into public duties. He attended commemorations this week for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on June 6, 1944.

Charles is likely to travel to Saturday’s event by carriage with Queen Camilla and is expected to watch the ceremony seated on a dais, rather than on horseback as he did last year.