The World Health Organization (WHO) took aim at Chinese officials for withholding information that could shed light on the origin of COVID-19.
“These data could have — and should have — been shared three years ago,” WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday, according to a report from the New York Times.
Ghebreyesus’ comments come after Chinese data that first became available in January was suddenly pulled offline after researchers offered to collaborate with Chinese scientists to analyze the data.
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Before the data’s sudden disappearance, a team of international virus experts was able to download and begin to analyze it. According to the researchers, the new information pointed toward the idea that the pandemic may have started in a Wuhan seafood market, where illegally traded raccoon dogs infected humans with the virus.
The researchers said the data shows that raccoon dogs, which are known to spread coronaviruses, left behind DNA in the same area of the Wuhan market where genetic signatures of the pandemic-causing coronavirus was also discovered.
“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited that DNA also deposited the virus,” Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah who helped analyze the data, told the Associated Press. “If you were to go and do environmental sampling in the aftermath of a zoonotic spillover event … this is basically exactly what you would expect to find.”
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But the discovery would clash with the explanations of Chinese officials, who have insisted that the samples that tested positive for the coronavirus at the market were brought in by sick people and not by animals.
“It’s just very unlikely to be seeing this much animal DNA, especially raccoon dog DNA, mixed in with viral samples, if it’s simply mostly human contamination,” Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times.
Access to the data could help finally shed light on the origin of the pandemic, a mystery that has resulted in several plausible explanations but no definitive answer. Ghebreyesus called for China to be transparent with the information, saying the missing evidence “needs to be shared with the international community immediately.”