COVID-19 animal origin scientists now point toward raccoon dogs as lab leak hypothesis grows

Security moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit. Ng Han Guan/AP

COVID-19 animal origin scientists now point toward raccoon dogs as lab leak hypothesis grows

Jerry Dunleavy

March 18, 05:00 AM March 18, 05:00 AM

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A group of scientists who have long pushed the theory that COVID-19 may have emerged from a Wuhan, China, wet market has now pushed fresh claims involving raccoon dogs that have not been peer-reviewed — after the Wuhan lab leak possibility gained credence in recent weeks.

On Thursday, both the Atlantic and the New York Times published stories contending that raccoon dogs sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan may have been an intermediary host for COVID-19 and that the fox-like mammals may have helped start the pandemic at the Chinese wet market.


The scientists did not publish their findings or have them peer-reviewed but rather described them to the outlets.

But the raccoon dog theory has only emerged following increasingly firmer intelligence assessments in recent weeks pointing to the Wuhan lab as the source of the outbreak that resulted in a pandemic.

The new article cited scientists Kristian Andersen, Eddie Holmes, Michael Worobey, Angela Rasmussen, Stephen Goldstein, and Florence Debarre as being involved in the discovery or analysis of the alleged Chinese data.

The New York Times said Andersen, Holmes, and Worobey “started mining the new genetic data last week” and that Rasmussen and Goldstein also “worked on the new analysis.”

Chinese government scientists had previously published their own study related to this alleged data in February 2022, and the New York Times reported Thursday that Debarre had discovered that new data had been posted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control on the GISAID genetics website last week but that the data were allegedly removed after international scientists began asking questions about it.

Richard Ebright, the lab director for the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner on Friday that the raccoon dog claim “adds little to the discussion” because “the data do not indicate that a raccoon dog was infected with SARS-Cov-2, much less that a raccoon dog was infected with SARS-CoV-2 and then transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to a human.”

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Ebright added that “the claim should not be taken at face value” in part because the data cited in the article has “not been made available for analysis.”

Five of the scientists — Andersen, Holmes, Rasmussen, Worobey, and Goldstein — were authors of a controversial study whose preprint was also shared with and written about by the New York Times in February 2022, while Debarre was thanked in the acknowledgments of the study.

The February 2022 preprint claimed that their analyses “provide dispositive evidence for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 via the live wildlife trade and identify the Huanan market as the unambiguous epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The preprint also claimed there was “incontrovertible evidence” of a “clear conduit” for natural emergence at the wet market. But none of those quoted claims appeared in the version of the paper that was eventually published by Science in July 2022 after a peer review.

The five scientists said “we thank” Debarre “for comments and assistance” when the peer-reviewed version was published last summer.

Ebright argued that “their track record of past false claims on the subject warrants extreme caution about their new claims on the subject, especially claims for which the data are not presented.”

The New York Times’s article, titled “New Data Links Pandemic’s Origins to Raccoon Dogs at Wuhan Market,” was authored by coronavirus reporter Benjamin Mueller. The article conceded that the data “does not prove that a raccoon dog itself was infected” and that “someone infected with the virus could have spread the virus to a raccoon dog.”

Mueller is the same author of the February 2022 article, which was titled “New Research Points to Wuhan Market as Pandemic Origin.”

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FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed last month that the bureau has long believed COVID-19 originated at a Chinese government lab, and it was recently revealed the Energy Department now believes with “low confidence” that the coronavirus started at a Wuhan lab.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an assessment in 2021 stating that one U.S. intelligence agency, the FBI, assessed with “moderate confidence” that COVID-19 most likely emerged from the Wuhan lab, while four U.S. spy agencies and the National Intelligence Council believed with just “low confidence” that COVID-19 most likely had a natural origin.

Andersen, a Scripps Research professor, previously wrote to Nature magazine in February 2020 that he and other scientists were “prompted” by Dr. Anthony Fauci, then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others to cast doubt on the lab leak theory.

The widely cited article published in Nature in March 2020 contended that suspicious binding receptors in SARS-CoV-2 likely emerged through “natural selection” and not through a lab leak, casting doubt on the possibility that COVID-19 originated at a Wuhan lab. Andersen was joined in writing the Nature article by British virologist Holmes, among others.

Previously released emails include notes from a Feb. 1, 2020, conference call in which at least 11 scientists (including Andersen and Holmes) theorized about the virus’s origin, with many leaning toward the lab leak. Emails indicate Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, then-director of the National Institutes of Health, worked to shut the hypothesis down.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for the COVID-19 response at the World Health Organization, said Friday that the raccoon dog claim unfortunately “doesn’t give us the answer of how the pandemic began, but it does give us more clues.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “These data could have — and should have — been shared three years ago.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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