From the minute that Edward Holmes caught sight of the dark-ringed eyes of the raccoon dogs looking at him through the bars of the iron cage, it was clear that he needed to capture the scene on film.
It was the month of October in 2014. In order to discover new forms of viruses, Dr. Holmes, a scientist from the University of Sydney, travelled to China to study hundreds of animal species in search of new viruses.
During a visit to Wuhan, a commercial metropolis with a population of 11 million people, specialists from the city’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention took him to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market for a look around. He witnessed live wild creatures being sold for food in stall after stall of the inadequately ventilated room, including snakes, badgers, muskrats, and birds, among other things. However, it was the raccoon dogs that prompted him to go for his iPhone.
With his expertise in viral evolution, Dr. Holmes had a thorough knowledge of how viruses may move from one species to another — often with lethal effects — and how they could spread from one species to another. It was discovered in 2002 that the SARS epidemic in China had been triggered by a bat coronavirus that had infected some form of wild animal before infecting people. The fluffy raccoon dog is one of the most likely suspects in the case of the intermediate animal.
He didn’t think about the images again until the final day of the year. Dr. Holmes was perusing Twitter from his home in Sydney when he heard of an alarming epidemic in Wuhan — a SARS-like pneumonia with early cases connected to the Huanan market — that he was able to stop before it spread much farther. He was thinking about the raccoon dogs.
“It was a pandemic just waiting to happen, and then it bloody well occurred,” he remarked of the outbreak.