Data collected in 2020 – and kept from public view ever since – potentially adds weight to the animal theory. It highlights a potential suspect: the raccoon dog. But the exact weight that adds depends on who you ask. New analyzes of the data have only revived the debate and caused serious drama.
The current heckling begins with a study shared by Chinese scientists in February 2022. In a preprint (a scientific paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal), George Gao from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) and his colleagues described how they collected and analyzed 1,380 samples from the Huanan Seafood Market.
These samples were collected between January and March 2020, just after the market closed. At the time, the team wrote that they only found coronavirus in samples alongside human genetic material.
There were many animals for sale in this market, which sold more than just seafood. Gao’s diary presents a long list, including chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, doves, deer, badgers, rabbits, bamboo rats, porcupines, hedgehogs, crocodiles , snakes and salamanders. And this list is not exhaustive – there are reports of other animals being traded there, including raccoon dogs. We will come back to this later.
But Gao and his colleagues reported that they did not find the coronavirus in any of the 18 animal species they examined. They suggested that it was humans who most likely brought the virus to market, which ended up being the first known epicenter of the outbreak.
Fast forward to March 2023. On March 4, Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist at the Sorbonne University in Paris, spotted data that had been uploaded to GISAID, a website that allows researchers to share genetic data to help them study and track viruses that cause infectious diseases. The data appeared to have been uploaded in June 2022. It appeared to have been collected by Gao and colleagues for their February 2022 study, although it was not included in the article itself.