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A bombshell study heralded as ‘the strongest evidence yet’ that Covid emerged naturally omitted key information that undermined its findings, experts claim.
The report, published online Monday, found DNA from raccoon dogs in the same location at an infamous Wuhan wet market where genetic material from Sars-CoV-2 was clustered in 2019.
Because raccoon dogs are known harborers of Covid, the research team concluded the finding ‘contributed to the large body of evidence supporting a natural origin.’
The paper was first leaked by The Atlantic last week with the headline: ‘The Strongest Evidence Yet That an Animal Started the Pandemic.’ What is not mentioned in the study’s manuscript is that all of the DNA samples from raccoon dogs tested negative for Covid via PCR test, experts told DailyMail.com.
Dr Steven Quay, a microbiologist in Seattle, Washington, who has spent the past two years investigating Covid’s origin, said this showed a ‘willingness to be untruthful’.
Researchers identified stalls in the southwest corner of the market where Covid is most prevalent. A large portion of Covid samples gathered from the area were from raccoon dogs, they determined
Racoon dogs made up more than 80 percent of Covid samples that researchers could identify a species for with 99 percent confidence or more
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University in the UK, told DailyMail.com: ‘You’re supposed to point that out.
‘I’m not saying there’s anything dodgy about it, but it should’ve been highlighted.
‘It is poor practice and there’s no way they [the researchers] would get that past a good quality journal [during the peer-review process] they would be forced to put it in their limitations and discussions section.’
The omission of that crucial caveat adds to growing concerns about the reliability of the report, whose main authors include scientists who shut down debate about the lab leak theory – which the FBI and Energy Department have said with varying degrees of confidence was likely the genesis of the pandemic.
Dr Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, was the lead author of a February 2020 paper some have said was designed to squash the theory that Covid may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). That paper, now infamous, was titled ‘Proximal Origin’.
Emails revealed earlier this month showed that Dr Andersen was prompted by former White House doctor Anthony Fauci to publish the paper, despite both experts privately expressing concern that the virus showed hallmarks of human engineering.
In the latest research, which is still pending peer review, researchers used data that was uploaded — and quickly taken down— to a database called the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), an international hub containing viruses’ genetic information.
The data included swab samples taken from surfaces, floors and walls from stalls in of the Huanan Seafood Market in epicenter Wuhan in January 2020.
Dr Steven Quay (pictured) said that the paper is ‘completely dishonest’ in saying it was evidence for a natural spillover
The Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) has kept this data under wraps since it was collected.
Now with it available, researchers were able to access and study the swab samples for the first time.
Their analysis found genetic material from raccoon dogs and Covid from the same southwest corner of the market.
Raccoon dogs act as intermediate hosts of the virus — meaning they catch pathogens from the wild and harbor it without falling ill themselves.
There is a risk they can spread viruses to humans — or any other animal they come into contact with.
The research team claims that Covid and the raccoon dog specimens being detected in the same place is too eerie to be a coincidence.
But the study does not prove the animals had Covid, instead just showing the virus existed on the same surfaces.
Dr Quay accused the team of using an imperfect testing method to detect the Covid genetic material.
The raccoon dog sample PCR tested negative for Covid but was positive when next-generation sequencing was used.
This process can rapidly read thousands of lines of DNA and RNA to determine the genome of collected samples.
Each sequence has a cycle threshold (CT), which is representative of the number of strands of DNA or RNA tested. The higher the score, the less reliable the test.
Dr Quay explained the CT score of the raccoon dog samples that tested positive for the virus was too high to be reliable.
The reliability of a PCR test — the most accurate Covid test used around the world — is the equivalent of around 40 CT.
To find a raccoon dog sample that was positive for Covid, Dr Quay said the researchers had to reach a CT score into the thousands.
‘We don’t have an environmental specimen that looks positive for infection,’ he told DailyMail.com.
He went on to say that the specimens that did test positive for the virus via PCR were ‘mostly human’.
He explained that once the number has reached the thousands, the amount of DNA being sequenced is so high that scientists could purport to find anything.
Meanwhile, the same raccoon dog sample in question tested negative by PCR test.
Other experts have also cast doubts on whether this paper is of any value.
Dr Franois Balloux, chair of computational biology at University College London, told DailyMail.com: ‘In light of the media furore that has preceded its release, the report feels remarkably underwhelming.
‘The analyses confirm that wild animals, including raccoon dogs, were on sale at the Huanan market. Though, this was not really in dispute, and there was evidence for this before, including photographs of caged raccoon dogs.’
He goes on to say that the report only confirms that there was Covid present at the market — not that the animals themselves had it.
This means that it does not ‘improve our understanding of the early stages of the pandemic,’ he continued.
Professor Balloux even says the report, and its subsequent coverage, could cause harm to the cause of finding the virus’s origins.
‘The drama surrounding the report risks undermining serious investigations of the origin of COVID-19,’ he continued.
‘There is in particular a risk that the Chinese scientists, who seemed prepared to share their raw data with the world, may now have changed their mind. I don’t believe there has been any winner in this unedifying saga.’
Dr Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told DailyMail.com: ‘[The report] contains almost no new information, and it contains absolutely no new information that permits new conclusions.’
‘To call the report a “nothing burger” would be generous.’
Dr Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in New York City, said on his Twitter that the time the samples were collected is a concern too.
Dr Richard Ebright (pictured), a microbiologist at Rutgers, told DailyMail.com the paper did not provide any new evidence
‘Overall, main thing we learn is details of which animals or products (eg, meats) were in market before it closed on [January 1, 2020]’ he wrote.
‘This doesn’t tell us if any infected [with Covid]. But knowing more about animals could help trace [the] supply chain, which is valuable line of investigation.
‘However, human SARS2 infections started in Wuhan no later than [November] 2019. So we have to be circumspect about environmental samples from [January] 2020.’
He continued: ‘We are unlikely to get conclusive answers about origin of an outbreak that started in [November] 2019 (or earlier) by looking at samples collected in [January] 2020.’
Among the report’s authors are some figures who were embroiled in controversy when Dr Fauci’s emails from early in the pandemic were made public.
Dr Andersen wrote in one Febraury 2020 email: ‘The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.’
Dr Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, is an author too.
Dr Garry was also involved in discussions early in the pandemic about the potential synthetic nature of the virus, and on a call with Dr Andersen and Dr Fauci where it is alleged they discussed how to dismiss the lab leak.
Dr Garry told DailyMail.com: ‘There is absolutely no lab leak scenario that is consistent with this data.
‘It’s time to nail the coffin containing all the lab leak conspiracy theories shut and give this long dead corpse a proper burial.’
He said that Dr Quay and Dr Ebright are ‘motivated by politics and an anti-science agenda.’
‘There is no reason not to trust this data – it is internally consistent,’ he added.
He said the NGS testing dismissed by Dr Quay would be more accurate than a PCR test because the samples collected by the CCDC were ‘partially degraded’.
Dr Garry went on to say the report ‘adds a lot of new information’ and puts raccoon dogs ‘at the very scene of the crime.’
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate about how to prevent the next pandemic. New studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbor Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
In response to comments by other scientists that the report did provide anything new, he said: ‘That’s ridiculous – new strong evidence is presented in the Report.
‘They just don’t like the extremely obvious conclusions.’
DailyMail.com reached out to Dr Andersen for comment as well.
The study began when Dr Florence Débarre, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, came across the data the day it was published, March 4.
Researchers downloaded the data, hoping to investigate it as part of their search for Covid’s origin.
Researchers learned later that the data was uploaded on June 22, 2022, but not released to the public. It was also used for a pre-print report revealed by Chinese scientists in February 2022
It was removed from the database on March 11. This research team had already downloaded it.
‘Data contributors frequently update their records with the help of GISAID’s data curation team. When this occurs, released records will become temporarily invisible. Doing so recognizes the inherent need to balance the urgency of sharing genomic and associated metadata and its quality to aid public health decision-making. GISAID does not, on its own accord, unrelease data,’ GISAID said in a statement.
The CCDC told researchers it plans to re-upload the data after its own review. It is unclear when that may be.
Chinese officials have been notoriously uncooperative in the search for Covid’s origin.
Analysis of the data also uncovered positive Covid specimens from mammals such as the Malayan porcupine, amur hedgehog, masked palm civet and hoary bamboo rat.
But, the raccoon dogs made up more than 80 percent of DNA and RNA detected.
‘Raccoon dog genetic material was abundant on a [Covid] positive sample from a cart, and much more so than human genetic material from the same sample,’ researchers wrote in the study.
The research team believes this finding heavily favors the natural spillover theory.
‘This provides further support for the hypothesis that wildlife were the source of the first human [Covid] infections,’ they wrote.
‘Once the initial spillovers had taken place, the market likely became a place of widespread human-to-human transmission.’