Scientists working for the Chinese government released a long-awaited report regarding a market in the city of Wuhan on Wednesday. The analysis confirmed that animals that are vulnerable to the coronavirus were present in the market around the time when the virus first appeared. However, the experts also mentioned that it was still unknown where the epidemic first started.
The investigation, which was conducted in early 2020 and published in the journal Nature, focused on swabs that were obtained from surfaces at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. This was a huge market in which a significant number of the first known Covid patients had worked or shopped. In February of 2022, the Chinese researchers published an early version of their genetic study of those samples; but, at the time, they played down the probability of animal illnesses at the market.
The researchers, the most of whom were connected in some way to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, had another objective, which was to get their findings published in a scholarly publication with peer review. The operators of the database said earlier this month that the scientists added additional DNA sequence data to a huge worldwide database as part of that procedure.
A group of worldwide researchers who had been looking into the causes of the pandemic said that they had made the discovery of the sequences by accident a few weeks after the data were made public. They discovered that samples that tested positive for the coronavirus included genetic material that belonged to animals, including high quantities of genetic material that were a match for the raccoon dog. The raccoon dog is a fluffy creature that is sold for its fur and flesh and is known to be able to transmit the coronavirus.
It would seem that the research conducted by the international team prompted the Chinese experts to publish their findings about the same data more quickly: The article was posted on the website of Nature on Wednesday with a notice stating that it had been approved for publication, but that it was still a “early version” and had not yet been edited. The note also said that the paper had not yet been edited.
William J. Liu, George Gao, and Guizhen Wu are only a few of the writers of the paper who are linked with the Chinese C.D.C. However, they did not react to our requests for comment.
In contrast, they said that the research “confirmed the existence of raccoon dogs” and other animals that are vulnerable to the coronavirus at the market in the version that was published on Wednesday, which was a little over a year later.
Many researchers in the field of science are of the opinion that the available data suggests that such creatures most likely served as what are known as intermediate hosts for the virus, which most likely started in bats. However, scientists also warn that the findings does not conclusively rule out the possibility that individuals at the market introduced the infection to the animals.
The Chinese authors of the current research emphasised the possibility of such ambiguity. They also brought up the possibility that the virus may have been transported to the Wuhan market on cold chain items, which are also known as packets of frozen food. This theory is known as the cold chain hypothesis. However, China continues to push it because it lends validity to the concept that the epidemic may have originated in another nation and arrived in the country through imported goods. This theory has been criticised by a number of experts as being exceedingly implausible.
According to academics from other institutions who were interviewed on Wednesday, the research featured a number of other surprising discoveries as well. For instance, it was said that the swabs included genetic material from a variety of creatures, such as pandas, chimps, and mole rats, which were very probably not present at the market.
Alice Hughes, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong whose area of expertise is conservation biology, said that the inclusion of such species implied either that the authors had mistakenly categorised the genetic material or that the samples were tainted during the sequencing process in a laboratory. Hughes’s comments were made in response to the fact that the inclusion of those animals was made public.
When asked how the results about the species had been handled by Nature’s peer-review process, a spokeswoman for the publication highlighted that the authors had included a disclaimer stating that the list of species discovered at the market was “not definitive” and that more research was necessary.
The most recent research published in Nature left a number of significant concerns unresolved for the foreign scientists who had been the first to report detecting traces of raccoon dogs in the Covid-positive swabs last month. These questions included the methodologies that the Chinese team used to analyse the sequences.
Alexander Crits-Christoph, a former postdoctoral researcher and computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University who helped lead the international team’s analysis, stated that the publication, as well as an earlier version of it posted online by the Chinese scientists last week, did supply critical new data. This included the number of swabs taken from each stall in the market.
Swabs taken from a section of the market that sold wild animals were more likely to test positive for the virus. This result could not be explained simply by the fact that Chinese researchers took more samples from that section, according to Dr. Crits-Christoph, who said that he and his colleagues were able to confirm an important finding with the new information.