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Photos of Animals at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market



WHO Urges China to Release Data Linking Animals to COVID-19 Outbreak

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Confirmation of Animal Housing

These two photos, taken in 2014 by scientist Eddie Holmes, show raccoon dogs and unknown birds caged in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. GPS coordinates of these images confirm that the animals were housed in the southwest corner of the market, where researchers found evidence of the coronavirus in January 2020.

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Data Removed from International Database

The World Health Organization is calling on officials in China to release data that may show a link between animals and the virus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. The data was posted briefly on an international database but then abruptly taken down over the weekend.

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Importance of Sharing Data

“A scientist on the team noticed the data come online by happenstance, and because they often check the GISAID database,” says Alexander Crits-Christopher, senior scientist in Computational Biology at Cultivarium, a nonprofit group focused on open source tools for research. “She shared the data with an international team and realized the relevance and importance of the data. This team then immediately contacted the data generators in the hopes of open communication and collaboration. The team then immediately alerted the WHO about the presence of the data, and the WHO has helped mediate that communication. All three of the parties above have iterated a shared goal of making data and analyses as open as possible, as soon as possible.”

Release of Data Essential

“The big issue right now is that this data exists and that it is not readily available to the international community,” says WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, who along with the head of the WHO is calling on Chinese officials to release all of the data they have around the potential origins of COVID. She adds that this information should have been shared years ago: “Any data that exists on the study of the origins of this pandemic need to be made available immediately.”

Photo and Genetic Evidence

In particular, scientists published two extensive, peer-reviewed papers in Science in July 2022, offering the strongest evidence to date that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in animals at a market in Wuhan, China. The studies provide photographic evidence of wild animals such as raccoon dogs and a red fox, sitting in cages in the market in late 2019. What’s more, the caged animals are shown in or near a stall where scientists found SARS-CoV-2 virus on a number of surfaces, including on cages, carts and machines that process animals after they are slaughtered at the market.

Details of the Studies

The data in the 2022 studies paints an incredibly detailed picture of the early days of the pandemic, providing genetic analysis that estimates the time when not just one but two spillovers occurred. At this exact same time, a huge COVID outbreak occurred at the market. Hundreds of people, working and shopping at the market, were likely infected. That outbreak is the first documented one of the pandemic, and it then spilled over into the community, as one of the Science papers shows.

Further Studies Needed

She stressed that many more studies need to be carried out: “These studies have been recommended over many years, looking at the source of the animals of the market, looking at potential intermediate hosts, looking at breaches in biosafety biosecurity. These studies have yet to be conducted, and until they are conducted, until we have the data, we aren’t able to conclusively say how this pandemic began.”

Michael Worobey’s Investigation

Back in May 2021, evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey signed a letter calling for an investigation into the lab-leak theory. But then, through his own investigation, he quickly found data supporting an animal origin. When the studies were first published online, NPR spoke to Worobey, to understand what the data tells us about the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Photographic Evidence and GPS Data

“With a virus, such as SARS-CoV-2, that causes no symptoms or mild symptoms in most people, you don’t have any chance of linking all the early cases to the site where the outbreak started. Because the virus is going to quickly spread to people outside of wherever it started. And yet, from the clinical observations in Wuhan, around half of the earliest known COVID cases were people dire. But he clicked photos of the raccoon dogs. In one photo, the raccoon dogs are in a cage stacked on top of a cage with some birds in it. And at the end of our sleuth work, we checked the GPS coordinates on his camera, and we find that he took the photo at the same stall, where five samples tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. So we connected all sorts of bizarre kinds of data. Together the data are telling a strong story.”



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