There is new evidence pointing to the origin of Covid being in the seafood market in Wuhan. That, at least, is the substance of a breathless piece published in the Atlantic. Specifically, Katherine Wu, the journalist who wrote the piece, had evidence suggesting that ‘raccoon dogs being illegally sold at the venue could have been carrying and possibly shedding the virus at the end of 2019’. Notice: ‘could have’, that old fallback of hype and spin.
Wu went on to claim that ‘it’s some of the strongest support yet, experts told me, that the pandemic began when SARS-CoV-2 hopped from animals into humans, rather than in an accident among scientists experimenting with viruses’.
As far as we know, Dr Gao also still thinks that the market was not the source
The claim is sadly what we ‘experts’ on this topic call a ‘grotesque exaggeration’. First, it’s not new: we reported that raccoon dogs were on sale in that market in our book Viral, which came out in 2021. Second, it shows that the raccoon dogs were there, not that they were infected with the virus. Third, the data behind the story are unavailable for inspection, having been deleted after they were briefly glimpsed by one scientist who appears to have grabbed them without permission of the author of those data.
The data appeared recently on a genetics database called Gisaid, in the form of a dump of DNA from various samples taken in the seafood market in early 2020. Rumour has it that it was put there by George Gao, the head of the Centers for Disease Control in Beijing, or one of his colleagues, as part of the back-up to a forthcoming publication.
Dr Gao, who has played a cautious and intriguing role in the story of the pandemic’s origin so far, appears not to have granted permission for his data to be grabbed and analysed in this way by Flo DeBarre, a theoretical evolutionary biologist at France’s CNRS. But whether he minds we don’t know. Chinese scientists don’t respond to journalists (I’ve tried). Nor is Dr DeBarre being very forthcoming. On Friday she tweeted: ‘[To journalists] We were not planning to communicate results before our report was finished. Finishing the report is my current priority. I won’t give interviews before the report is published.’ Yet somebody gave the unfinished, unanalysed, unverifiable story to the Atlantic.
Dr Gao was one of the key people who first shocked me into investigating this story. Although on 22 January 2020 he had confidently announced that ‘the origin of the new coronavirus is the wildlife sold illegally in a Wuhan seafood market’, four months later he changed his mind: ‘At first, we assumed the seafood market might have the virus, but now the market is more like a victim.’ His ruling out the market combined with other revelations led me and my co-author, the molecular biologist Alina Chan, to dig deeper and eventually write a book. We think a lab leak is more likely than the market, but we don’t claim any certainty.
As far as we know, Dr Gao also still thinks that the market was not the source. He published a preprint a year ago in which he stated that ‘no virus was detected in the animal swabs covering 18 species of animals in the market’. These animals tested included bamboo rats and other species known to be susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. No raccoon dogs, but as I said we did know that raccoon dogs had been sold illegally in the market in recent years.
We found this out in June 2021 when a paper appeared detailing a two-year study of the illegal wildlife being sold in markets in Wuhan – a spectacular and useful coincidence. We immediately contacted two of the authors, Xiao Xiao and David MacDonald, and were taken aback to be told that it had taken them many months to get their data into the public domain. After two rounds of review at one journal, the paper was deemed by the editors to be of insufficient general interest. The next journal took seven months to approve its publication. That the study had found that no pangolins were on sale in the market was apparently thought inconvenient to the prevailing (now discredited) theory that pangolins were the source.
The authorities may have missed these illegal animals in the market, although not necessarily: the authors of the study told us that November, when the pandemic probably began, was a quiet time in the illegal wildlife trade and the numbers sold in Wuhan were anyway small.
Raccoon dogs can catch Covid, but so can bamboo rats, cats, dogs and other animals that were tested. So finding this species – actually it’s a relative of foxes that just looks like a raccoon – does not change anything. Finding its DNA in the same sample as the virus, as this latest evidence is claimed to have done, is more interesting but still far from conclusive. Dr Gao and his colleagues found the virus in 64 places in the market, mostly in the sewage, on the ground or on doors. But in every case it was the human form of the virus, not a close animal cousin as you would expect if there were an infected animal. Hence Dr Gao’s remark about the market probably being a superspreader location.
The episode reinforces a bizarre trend in which a small group of western virologists with ready access to the media, who are desperate not to concede that the pandemic might have begun in a virology laboratory, are far more certain that the pandemic began in animals in that market than Dr Gao or the Chinese authorities now are. The latest story may eventually prove to be a game changer, but it is not helpful that it comes with the imprimatur of that well known pair of scoundrels, Dr Spin and Mr Hype.