WHO calls on China to share data on raccoon dog link to pandemic. Here's what we know
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
There's new evidence that the COVID pandemic originated from an animal at a seafood market in Wuhan, China. Specifically, this is new genetic evidence suggesting a raccoon dog at the market was infected in the early days of the outbreak. What's more, this genetic data was spotted last week on a public database, then taken down shortly after by Chinese officials, which is sparking its own controversy and renewing claims that China's government is still withholding crucial evidence about the pandemic's origins. Let's bring in NPR science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. Hey there.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So the plot thickens because just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Energy was offering support that - to the theory that this was a lab leak in Wuhan that was behind the outbreak. There was all this evidence on the flip side for an animal origin. And now you're saying there's even more evidence?
DOUCLEFF: That's right. That's right. You know, there are a few caveats. Scientists haven't published this - these findings, and they haven't been peer reviewed. The findings were presented at a closed-door meeting with the World Health Organization on Tuesday.
KELLY: And what is the evidence?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So back in January 2020, right when COVID was exploding in Wuhan, Chinese scientists went into the Huanan Seafood Market looking for signs of the virus. Remember; that's the giant market where a few stalls were selling live wild animals.
KELLY: Right. That's the market - right? - where the first big COVID outbreak took place?
DOUCLEFF: Exactly. And near a particular stall, scientists found genes from SARS-CoV-2 and live virus. It was on a bunch of surfaces, including a cage, a drain and butchering equipment. This is the stall selling the wild animals. And what's new here is now an international team of scientists have found that this genetic data also contained a large amount of DNA from animals, including a raccoon dog. This DNA is mixed together with genetic material from the virus.
KELLY: Mixed together - OK. So animal genes and virus genes mixed together. That means the raccoon dog was infected with COVID?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So I asked that particular question to Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan. She helped analyze this new data. And she said, you know, we do not know that yet.
ANGELA RASMUSSEN: We don't have proof of the so-called smoking raccoon dog. We just have the evidence of the animals in the same part of the market where we know that there was virus.
KELLY: Before we move on, Michaeleen, I keep getting hung up on the detail. What actually is a raccoon dog?
DOUCLEFF: Yes. So actually, it's not a raccoon or a dog. It's most closely related to foxes. And, yeah, so this new data isn't proof that an animal was the source of the outbreak, but here's what's so tantalizing about it. The samples had a lot of animal DNA in them, more than human DNA. And as Rasmussen told me, this suggests the virus came from an animal versus a person. Scientists know that raccoon dogs - they're wild animals, are highly susceptible to COVID, and they shed the virus into the air.
KELLY: What about the fact that we are only hearing about this evidence now, but China clearly had it? Does that mean China was holding on to, was withholding this evidence?
DOUCLEFF: Absolutely. Last week, Chinese scientists posted the genetic data to a public database briefly and then took it down. These are samples taken in January 2020 and analyzed at least by 2022. And China hasn't previously released them. But a scientist working with Rasmussen had been watching that database. And she saw the data go up, and she saw it get removed. And by then, she and others had already downloaded the data, which shows, as many have been saying, that the Chinese government has been withholding information about the origins. Here's Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove from the WHO today calling for more transparency.
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MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: The big issue right now is that this data exists and that it is not readily available to the international community. This is, first and foremost, absolutely critical, not to mention that it should have been made available years earlier.
KELLY: All right. Reporting there from NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Michaeleen, thanks.
DOUCLEFF: Thank you.
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