Genomic data relating to Covid-19 has been made fully available again, assisting independent assessment of a potential animal link to the outbreak of coronavirus in China in late 2019.
Global genomic repository Gisaid made the data, which was first made available this January by researchers affiliated to the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessible again on Tuesday. Analysis of the data found molecular evidence that animals including raccoon dogs on sale in late 2019 at a Wuhan market were susceptible to being infected by Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
“We are glad to see these data made available again to all registered Gisaid users through the platform,” Gisaid told the Financial Times. “This will hopefully end the unfortunate speculation about what may or may not be gleaned from analysing these data.”
The data had been temporarily obscured pending what Gisaid said were “newer and additional data as part of a manuscript under review” by Chinese CDC researchers. But the restoration of access will help scientists globally discern whether the findings on a potential zoonotic link, first reported in The Atlantic, offer a credible theory on the pandemic’s origins.
Three years into the pandemic, there is no consensus or certainty on Covid’s origins, with the two most prominent theories involving either an accidental lab leak or transmission of the virus from an intermediate animal host. The fractious debate has pitted Washington against Beijing and divided the scientific community.
Some US intelligence agencies believe the virus originated from an accidental lab leak, though their confidence in the assessment is not high, while a World Health Organization mission to China in 2021 concluded this was “extremely unlikely”. However, the global health body has repeatedly stressed that all options remain on the table and that China has not been forthcoming enough in sharing raw data about the early phases of the outbreak.
Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated, hosts a laboratory called the Wuhan Institute of Virology which is known to have conducted viral experiments including gain-of-function trials that involve manipulating pathogens to help understand how viruses behave. The central Chinese city of 12mn people also hosts the Huanan wet market, to which early cases of the disease in late 2019 were linked.
Though it has been accused by some scientists of deleting data, Gisaid has said it “does not delete records”.
The WHO said shortly after publication of the potential animal link that the data should have been made available three years ago, and that it was far from conclusive in determining Covid’s origins.
The WHO, which was accused in the early stages of the pandemic of being too lenient on China and too slow to warn of Covid’s dangers, has been increasingly critical of Beijing, going as far as accusing it of underrepresenting Covid deaths at the height of its most recent widescale outbreak late last year.