The Another

    new data relaunch the trail of the raccoon dog – Liberation



    The Covid-19 pandemic in Francecase

    A French researcher got her hands on raw data from the Wuhan market in 2020. Additional elements to support an animal origin of Covid-19.

    A pangolin, a bat-infested mine, a lab, and now the raccoon dog. The investigation into the origins of Covid-19 has a new serious suspect: this small canine, close to the raccoon, very sensitive to Sars-Cov-2 and sold for its fur or its meat on… the Wuhan market. This is the discovery made by several researchers by analyzing data from the very first analyzes carried out on the market in early 2020. They published their work in a report which has not yet been submitted for peer review.

    The French researcher Florence Débarre (CNRS) is at the origin of this discovery, thanks to good luck. “I was looking for information on another sequence from the Wuhan market in January 2020”, she tells us. Almost a routine for this research director in evolutionary biology. The operation consists of typing the right keywords into the search engine of the Gisaid site on which researchers around the world publish data relating to Covid. But on March 4, “it got me a lot more results than usual”she recalls.

    The time to understand what she had to do, the researcher finds herself with more than 600 gigabytes of raw data from the first samples taken from the Wuhan market – place of emergence of Covid-19 – after its closure in early 2020. gold mine it had been looking for for a year and the publication of a preliminary Chinese study partially exploiting this data in February 2022. But the raw information had never been shared before. She shares her discovery – and her joy – with a small group of researchers who are also interested in the question and off we go for two sleepless weeks of high-speed analysis.

    The track of a natural origin regains thickness

    At the very beginning of the outbreak, China shut down the Wuhan market. Before its complete cleaning, the researchers came on site to take samples from the tables, trolleys, etc. These are the raw data from these samples that Florence Débarre got her hands on. It contains human, viral, bacterial and animal genetic material. Many animals, including animals known to be susceptible to Covid-19 such as civets or raccoon dogs. “Our report shows that there were indeed raccoon dogs in this part of the market, contrary to what was once said”she explains to Release.

    On a trolley, the researchers even found the Sars-Cov-2 genome and the raccoon dog genome, suggesting that it was indeed the animal that was infected. In addition, these sequences come from the place in the market where the most positive samples for Covid-19 have been identified. Incredibly coincidentally, this is the same area of ​​the market that scientist Edward Holmes, also co-author of this report, photographed in 2014. “He had taken a picture of a raccoon dog in a cage at this exact location. He was working at potential pandemic sites, and he may have photographed, five years earlier, the exact stall from which Sars-Cov-2 startedsums up Florence Débarre.

    Not absolute proof

    Is this the ultimate proof expected? No. “This work formally demonstrates the presence of certain animals that are potential intermediate hosts of Sars-Cov-2, which we were told were not sold in the Wuhan market. But it does not settle the question of whether these animals were infected, in particular because the first infections on the market began more than a month before the samples were collected.emphasizes to Release Etienne Decroly, also a researcher at the CNRS who did not participate in this study and who had, as early as October 2020, pleaded for the track of a laboratory error to be seriously explored. “The absolute proof would be the discovery of a virus genetically close to more than 99.8% of the one that has circulated in humans”, he continues. If this close relative is found in a bat, a raccoon dog or a laboratory, it will tell the origin of Covid-19. But several researchers even doubt the possibility that this cousin of Sars-Cov-2 will ever be found. For lack of anything better, we have to make do with the available evidence.

    “These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), during a press conference on March 17, relating to this report. “But every piece of data is important to get us closer to that answer,” did he declare.

    Disappearance of data and brutal debate

    Since the start of the pandemic, China’s attitude has prevented the quest for the origins of Covid-19 from continuing. The data found by Florence Débarre “should have been shared three years ago”, thundered Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Even more disturbing, when the Chinese researchers who deposited them were contacted for more information on these elements, they made them inaccessible. A sequence that shows “the lack of transparency in the search for the origins of Sars-Cov-2”emphasizes Etienne Decroly.

    This lack of transparency fueled the idea that China had something to hide, such as a laboratory leak that caused the Covid. No formal proof of this scenario has been provided to date. China’s official position is to deny that the appearance of Covid-19 took place on its soil. “A growing body of evidence in the global scientific community traces the origins of Sars-Cov-2 to sources around the world”, affirmed thus Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 10, 2022.

    In its joint report with the WHO on the origins of Covid in March 2021, China had even succeeded in imposing the scenario of importing the virus through frozen meat. “The joint WHO-China report on the origins of Covid went to great lengths to explain that the pandemic did not start in China”, comments Etienne Decroly. The Chinese attitude was perhaps a reaction to Donald Trump’s habit of talking about the “Chinese virus” speaking of the Covid in 2020.

    “Prevent this from happening again”

    Be that as it may, the debate on the origins of Covid today remains open and politically polluted. “I have experienced both sides of the debate and one is much more violent than the other, relates Florence Débarre. When I said a lab leak was possible, at worst, I could be met with contempt. Since I leaned towards the zoonotic hypothesis, it’s much worse. I am being harassed, mainly on Twitter. I can no longer work with some colleagues and I am sad about that. Some conspirators speak of me as a traitor, say that I had participated in discussions about a possible laboratory leak to spy on them…”

    However, this debate is essential. “My conviction is that this investigative work is necessary. No one wants to replay an identical situation with a Sars-Cov-3. Whether the virus comes from a wild animal, a farm or a research accident, we must therefore identify the mechanism of emergence to prevent it from happening again.believes Etienne Decroly.

    And work remains to be done. “Scientifically, it can be requested that sampling campaigns be carried out in wild and farmed raccoon dog populations around Wuhan. Journalistically, we could see if these farms experienced outbreaks in 2019.”concludes Florence Débarre.


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